By now, many have heard the story of Ethan Crouch, a 16-year-old White male from Texas who killed four people in a collision while driving drunk. Crouch was sentenced to 10 years probation and not a day of jail time by a judge (note: despite incorrect reporting of the case, Crouch did not "win" his case, but rather pled guilty and was convicted. Judges maintain wide levels of discretion on sentencing decisions within minimum sentencing guidelines). In his defense, Crouch's attorneys argued that he suffered from affluenza or, essentially the "condition" of being too spoiled. They explained that Crouch's parents gave him everything he wanted and never set boundaries. This set the stage, they argued, for this reckless behavior and, ultimately, he should not be held responsible in the ways that most would simply because he had never been given rules before.
Translation: His parents never allowed the rules to apply to him, so neither should the law.
My initial reaction was almost-humored and then quickly enraged. White privilege ain't nothing new, but it has now been given a formal diagnosis in the eyes of the law.
Since Couch's sentencing, a lot of stuff is now cleared up for me. America has suffered from a 400+ year affluenza outbreak. It was affluenza that has fueled the racial power structure in America. It was affluenza that told massa'nem they could have any Black woman on the plantation whenever they wanted, regardless of her cries of "no!" And it was affluenza again that has kept the scales of justice improperly calibrated from everything since Plessy to Scott to Zimmerman.
It's a lot easier than saying "White privilege." It's not their fault; their parents gave them everything they wanted. I could've sworn the adage was "To whom much is given…" Apparently, to whom everything is given, very little is expected.
Oh, okay. I get it.
No sooner than the gavel had banged in the Fort Worth courtroom where Crouch was sentenced did folks across America start seeing those around them afflicted with this terrible ailment. I'm fact, I'm pretty sure last Thursday I saw Joe Morton read, rather astutely, an acute diagnosis of affluenza to a powerful White man while sitting in an interrogation room. Yup, affluenza is real, folks.
But, for everything that I understand about affluenza, there are still several things I'm lost about.
Can I get some affluenza? I've been in the street trying to catch some but just seem to come up with the common cold. Came close to getting some pneumonia but that's about it. No affluenza for me. It appears that it's a dominant hereditary gene. For as widespread as this affluenza outbreak has been, the most astonishing thing has been America's unfailing ability to isolate this contagion to the exclusion of other races. The only things I know my folks been passing down through generations are sickle cell and high blood sugar. Apparently Affluenza has missed my gene pool. Entirely.
While the title suggests that affluenza is a condition related to status and wealth rather than race, I submit that any attempt to differentiate along those lines is little more than a smokescreen of semantics. Further, even for a wealthy Black family whose son killed four people in a drunk driving accident, is there any real question as to whether affluenza would fly as a viable defense?
Sarcasm aside, this judge's inexplicable reasoning is an outrage that sets a horrible precedent for allowing those who have already had the rules bent for them, bend even further. More importantly, it begs the bigger question: If the law will not hold accountable those individuals whose parents have blindly given them everything, will it also, then, exempt from punishment the countless numbers of young people of Crouch's age who break the law after growing up with absent parents who have given them nothing?
As a former prosecutor, I saw countless faces of young Black and brown males who were convicted, largely in part, for little more than being born poor. While I have little sympathy for those who victimize others who often have just as little if not less than the offenders themselves, I did try to exercise a level of discretion in considering how an individual's circumstance may have played a role in influencing their criminal behavior. That is, essentially, what Crouch's attorneys argued and what persuaded the judge in sentencing Crouch.
In theory, I am not opposed to such reasoning on a generalized, macro level–but it must cut both ways. If someone can receive lenience for, essentially, not having enough guidance or discipline such that they ignored most rules, then it seems that there are literally thousands of young people (who have never killed anyone, much less four people) who should have their sentences immediately commuted due to parental neglect similar to Crouch's but with significantly lesser resources.
But, we all know that will not happen because we can’t blame it on affluenza. I suppose me and my folks will just have to make due having hypertension and "the sugar."
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor and current federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr.