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



From Miley to Macklemore: The Privilege Spectrum

miley-cyrus-2014Miley fatigue is in full effect, but we feel it is important that we as white people speak up, and hold our folks accountable to their racist behavior. The burden far too often falls on people of color to respond, to explain, to teach, to protest.

This year’s Video Music Awards were yet another historical moment where whiteness reigned supreme.  Black and Brown cultural creators and innovators were for the most part invisible, or worse, used as evidence of acceptance or racial progress. Jon Caramanica highlights how the VMAs were a window into a larger history within American popular culture:  “Mr. Timberlake was on trend in way, though: this was a banner year for clumsy white appropriation of black culture who were recipients of three awards, including best hip-hop video.”

In this context, the question of appropriation matters – power, privilege, stereotypes, and centuries of racism play through both the appropriation and the resulting responses.   To be clear, we are not against white folks embracing the art and culture that speaks truth to their hearts and souls, as hip-hop culture is still our first love, rather we are advocating for acknowledgement, accountability, and action. We are calling for examination of how stereotypes and blackness within the white imagination are often present within these moments of appropriation.

MacklemoreOn the privilege spectrum, we find ourselves appreciating Macklemore at a certain level, who is beginning, by at least acknowledging, in his lyrics, that white privilege is one of the reasons he is successful. Honest and courageous.  In a recent interview, he noted,  “I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ‘Thrift Shop‘ was safe enough for the kids….  the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe.’”

His rhetorical and lyrical stance doesn’t mean he isn’t cashing in on his privileges.  The awards, the celebration of him as “exceptional” and different, the erasure of artists like 9th Wonder, Azealia Banks, Murs, Angel Haze, dead prez or Jasiri X from discussions of independent and conscious artists, and his popularity among white youth all speak to the centrality of whiteness.  For him, and for us, the next step is to take that and be accountable by being in action for racial justice. Using his platform to impact the movement toward racial justice.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Thicke and Cyrus, along with their media collaborators, which not surprisingly have left Thicke (just as it left JT out of the post Super Bowl panics) out harm’s way.  They are the embodiment of a history of not just appropriation and theft, but the ease to which artists are allowed and rewarded for pushing the boundaries.  “White artists have the privilege to be ‘ratchet’ but still be accepted by mainstream media and seen as safe and marketable,” states Jasiri X.  “It’s been going on as long as we’ve invented different genres of music, but I’m glad at least now we’re having a discussion about it. Let’s not forget that this current cultural appropriation began with the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of the Native Americans.”

Gender Privilege Takes A Bow

Robin Thicke-Miley CyrusIt’s telling that Robin Thicke seems to be getting a pass amid all the media discussions of Miley. We have seen this before in so many contexts but yet again the sexual performances of men are judged by different standards as those of women.  Despite the sight of a 36 year old married white men grinding up against a 20-year old white women, the outrage and dismay has been directed at her.  In the American landscape White + male means go directly to the bank and don’t pass go.  Miley on the other hand is forced to stop for a media tongue lashing before heading to the bank.

None of this is to say that Miley Cyrus deserves a pass, especially in light of her co-staring role in Appropriation-polooza the VMAs.  There is much to be said about how she, Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake all seem to be celebrated for their connection to and performance of cultural productions tied to blackness.  Yet, unlike their black counterparts inside and outside the music industry, they are not castigated for dysfunctional culture, or scapegoated for white social ills.   There is much to be critical of regarding Miley’s performance and the role of MTV here (putting her face in the booty of the African American female dancer; her history with twerking; and her recent interviews saying she loves “hood” music). This isn’t just about appropriation or even the performance of black culture that is rooted in the white imagination.  Rather it is about double standards.  It is the celebration of white artists amid a culture that denigrates African Americans who partake in these cultural productions.  It is about a culture that profits and privileges Miley and Thicke, but cites sagging pants or sexual dancing as evident of dysfunction and pathology.  To talk about “appropriation” and the centrality of privilege and anti-black racism requires also talking about whiteness

The panic, from Fox to MSNBC, is wrapped up in American history – it is where race and gender, where misogyny and white supremacy, intersect.  It reflects the fear resulting from contact or connection with what is seen as blackness.  Whereas Robin Thicke doesn’t need protection from blackness, from black male sexuality, and from the cultural pollutants found in hip-hop, Miley needs saving.  Taking their cues from history, the patriarchal media is thus intervening to save Miley from blackness.  “Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention,” writes Jody Rosen.  “Her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of ‘the hood.’”

The calls for intervention, and the fears about messages to “the kids” (whose kids, anyway?) are connected to her imagined proximity to an imagined blackness.  Once good little Hannah Montana has been corrupted by the influence of hip-hop and blackness.  From girl-next-door to girl-grinding- a-poll.  The idea that blackness is pollutant reveals the level of stereotypes and why Miley needs help.  Her fall from role model is seen as a consequence of cultural integration.  The fears are thus about protecting her assigned white feminine purity and those who want to be like Miley.


Not surprising we didn’t see a movement toward justice on the VMAs.  But we can hope, we can speak out, we can be accountable and hold others accountable, and we can act. What we would love to see with white performers, whether it be Macklemore or JT, who are benefiting directly and indirectly from white privilege and racism, is action: Use your platform and your voice to honor and pay respect to the people and cultures who originated the art form. Let’s not allow what happened to jazz and rock n roll happen to hip-hop and R n’ B.  Let’s not turn artistry rooted in the black community into spaces of stereotypes, appropriated by white artists who reap the benefits while African Americans suffer the consequences.

We are working toward a tipping point where the majority of white people can recognize we all still benefit unfairly from our skin color, and that we all have a stake in ending this injustice.  We can only hope that the outrageous acts we witnessed at the VMA’s push more of us to demand change, to stand up for justice—from cultural appropriation to dehumanizing stereotypes, from mistreatment of immigrants to stop and frisk, from the criminalization of black and brown youth to the prison industrial complex. It is all connected. It is all on the spectrum of injustice.

Stand up for what’s right.

Thanks to Rosa Clemente, Jonathan Fields, and Kwame Holmes all of who inspired this piece in important ways.

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

Copyright August 2013