White and Wealthy = Free Pass (Affluenza)

The Facts:

Ethan Couch

Ethan Couch

A wealthy white 16-year old teen, named Ethan Couch, dodges a 20 year sentence despite killing four people while driving intoxicated. His ticket to freedom has been attributed to a psychologist arguing that his wealthy parents spoiled him rotten so he didn’t know any better.  As reported by Jessica Luther, in The Guardian, Dr. Miller described the teen’s diagnosis of affluenza in the following way:

“The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money. He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way. He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”

While seemingly ignoring the legal, cultural, social, and economic roots of these lessons, and failing to note the irony in putting on a defense that cites the lack of accountability and responsibility in an effort to limit accountability and responsibility, his defense team secured a victory with this strategy.

Such success reveals the entrenched nature of white supremacy and class privilege.  As Luther notes, the ability to see Couch as innocent, to see this young boy as having a future, and as someone who can be rehabilitated, helps us understand this “slap on the wrist” especially in comparison to the draconian criminal justice experienced by youth of color. “But there is something else going on here. It matters that Judge Boyd saw Couch as someone that not only could be rehabilitated but whom it was worth it to rehabilitate,” she notes.  In the white supremacist and classist imagination, Couch has the values, the culture, the family, and the whiteness that bestows him second chances; his redemption is possible, especially because his parents are able to foot the $450,000 dollar bill for in-patient treatment at a California center.   One has to wonder what the treatment for affluenza might be: writing 1000 times on the board, “just because I am white doesn’t mean everything I do is right”; or chanting, “I will be accountable for my actions.” Or will simply he be forced to live without his i-phone and car for a few months?    Poor Ethan!

The Implications:

While the outrage over the justice system’s decision to pat little Ethan on the head, sending him to bed with no dessert is warranted, it would be a mistake to see the judge’s decision as exceptional.  Each and every day, institutions and individuals make decisions with special concern for not only affluenza, but whititis (the consequences of white entitlement) and masculenza (the ailment of male privilege) as well.  The lack of accountability, compared to the harsh and unequal injustice felt by youth of color, is nothing new.

One such example is the case of Andrew Klepper, a 16-year old white male from Bethesda Maryland, who in 2002 plead guilty to three felonies, including charges that he sodomized a woman with a baseball bat, held her at knifepoint and stole $2,000 dollars from her.  His sentence: probation and treatment at an out-of-state facility (by 2011, after multiple arrests, he was finally sent to prison for 7 years – we guess three strikes of affluenza means you are out).  His parents’ ability to pay for the “treatment” and his “potential” surely led to this sentence.   We must put this latest sentencing of Ethan Couch in a historical context to really understand the depth of the implications.

In a society where middle-class white youth pop Adderall with great frequency, reporting this illegal usage without any fear of punishment, it is clear that affluenza is systemic.  In a society where Bill Maher and others white celebrities take to the airwaves to tout their marijuana use, where college students at historically white institutions break laws with greater frequency than attending class, it’s a mistake to limit the conversation to Mr. Couch, Dr. Miller, or Judge Boyd.

Quoted in USA Today, Daniel Filler, a law professor at Drexel University who specializes in juvenile law broke it down; “The real truth is that our criminal justice system is suffering from ‘affluenza’ because affluent people can afford better attorneys and better get better outcomes,” Filler said.  Numbers don’t lie how pervasive race and class privilege operate within the criminal justice system.   As noted by Vijay Prashad, in Keeping up with the Dow Joneses, almost sixty percent of juveniles detained in correction facilities are black; an additional 21 percent are Latino.  In total, half of the 700,000 youth in juvenile prison are there as a result of a first offense, usually a drug or property crime.   Mr. Couch killed four people, stole alcohol from WalMart, drove drunk, and injured two more people, and was neither sent to a juvenile detention facility, much less tried as an adult.

Numbers don’t lie – without affluenza, go directly to jail!

 A 2008 report from the Equal Justice Initiative points to the ample benefits of those “suffering” with affluenza, whititis, and masculenza:

“2,225 children under the age of 18 are serving life sentences in US. Prisons; almost two-thirds are children of color”

According to Marian Wright Edelman,

1 in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension during the 2009-10 school year.

Black students were more than three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers for the same offenses”

Clearly affluenza and related illnesses are letting all too many off the hook, even while youth of color are routinely punished.  According to the NAACP,

“Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.”

Highlighting racial bias along every level of of the juvenile justice system, the study found that the growing acceptance to try juvenile as adults has disproportionate impacted youth of color.

Black youth are more likely than white youth, who commit comparable crimes, to be arrested, prosecuted, tried as adults, convicted, sentenced, and sent to adult prison.

When comparing youth with no prior records that arrested for violent crimes – including murder, rape and robbery – 137 out of every 100,000 blacks are incarcerated, compared with 15 out of every 100,000 whites (Mauer 2001).

 The examples are endless, the data is telling, and the destroyed lives are countless; racism and class privilege are leading youth of color to prison all while protecting white youth.

 Why We Can’t Tolerate This:

In America, white youth, no matter how severe the crime is, are unlikely to be locked up.  The greatest “get out of jail free card” is whiteness and wealth.  Mr. Couch and his attorney merely brought this into light, showing what is all too common.

While his sentence was buttressed by a defense of “affluenza,” we see it another way: the (non)punishing of Couch was a victory for/by white supremacy, and class and gender privilege.

No fancy name will change this reality.

Stand up for what’s right

JLove and David

About the Authors

David Leonard is a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University. http://drdavidjleonard.com/

JLove Calderon is a conscious media maker, social entrepreneur, and author of five books, including her latest: Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation. www.jlovecalderon.com


We Can Make Up Words Too!Whititis = white entitlement

Masculenza = male privilege

Coined by David Leonard