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Ethan Couch white privilege

How White Privilege Shapes “Intent” — and How Intent Keeps Privileged Whites Out of Jail

Ethan Couch white privilege

Wealthy white privilege kept Ethan Couch from serving any jail time for a drunk driving incident that killed four people, while that same judge sent a black teen to jail for a lesser crime.

by Kristance Harlow

The common saying that “it’s the thought that counts” is supposed to apply to gift-giving, but it was destined to morph — as all language does — and has been used to justify the continuation of a broken criminal justice system. Not everyone’s thoughts count, though. Intent is determined by the powerful — and benefits the powerful, or those who least threaten the status quo.

What is privilege?

White privilege provides a protective buffer of assumptions that is not given to people of color, especially not to black people. To better understand how this functions, think of whiteness as a protective benefit-of-the-doubt shield. To level up the shield, you have to be given more layers of privilege.

For example, three additional layers of privilege would be able-bodied, cis male and in in the one percent. The kicker is, no one has any say in the shield they start with. Less-protective shields suffer more damage more frequently because they are weaker against accusations of ill intent. Higher-level shields have so many automatic protections that they do not have to worry about the same dangers as lower-level shields. A person and their shield are nearly inseparable.

A cornerstone of the criminal justice system in America is that everyone is (supposed to be) considered innocent until proven guilty. We can’t forget about the shield, because it doesn’t disappear in the courtroom.

How privilege shapes “justice”

Ethan Couch was given a pretty strong one. Couch, a rich, white 16-year-old in Texas, skirted any real punishment for killing four pedestrians while drunk driving. His defense was, essentially, affluenza, a highly controversial psychological diagnosis. Even the use of the word “kill” was debated in court; the psychologist said, “The term ‘kill’ … it implies there was some motive … I think [his] motive [was] honorable.” Couch had such a bulletproof shield of privilege, it allowed him to get away with murder. After all, he didn’t mean to kill anyone.

The same judge who sentenced Ethan Couch sat for a case in which a 14-year-old killed someone with a single punch. This child, who is black, was given a 10-year prison sentence. Let that sink in for a moment:  10 years for one death, versus probation for four deaths.

To add fuel to the fire, this judge presided over the case of another 16-year-old male who killed someone. Eric Bradlee Miller killed a young father in a drunk driving incident and was given a 20-year sentence. Miller was white but, unlike Couch, he was very poor. Court documents show that he was a troubled kid being raised by his grandfather. Miller’s mother was not involved in his life, due to a debilitating drug addiction. Miller was painted as a degenerate youth who needed to be punished harshly — while Couch was just a naïve and spoiled child who needed more guidance.

Related: Why Are We Still Surprised by Leniency for White Rapists Like Brock Turner?

This same issue of white intent is a strong undercurrent in the nationwide debate about guns and the overlapping epidemic of police shootings. Police have been allowed to indiscriminately kill black folks for imagined intent. Tamir Rice’s murder at the hands of shoot-first-ask-questions-later police has not resulted in an indictment. The perceived intent of this child’s action as he reportedly tried to grab a toy (a plastic toy replica gun) and the responding officers’ intent to “protect the public” has been enough justification to keep the man who shot him out of jail. Life and death and displays of (in)justice hinge on white imagined intent.

It is a rare instance when the public hears about the police officers who do not pull the trigger, and we should be talking about them more. If we look into the nuances of police shootings, maybe we can pinpoint more proof of a broken system. On May 6, 2016, a West Virginia cop had no plans to shoot Ronald D. “R.J.” Williams. Stephen Mader, a Marine turned police officer, responded to a call to find Williams distraught and holding an unloaded gun.

Williams, a 23-year-old father, told Mader to pull the trigger. Mader analyzed the situation and determined that Williams was only a threat to himself and was likely attempting suicide by cop. Mader worked on deescalating the situation by utilizing techniques he’d learned in the Marines and at the police academy. But then two more officers arrived at the scene, and one of them killed Williams by shooting him in the back of the head.

Mader was unceremoniously fired for “fail[ing] to eliminate a threat.” A police officer was fired for not shooting a black man. A highly trained police officer correctly read a scene, and his attempt to utilize non-lethal tools to calm down a potentially volatile situation was interrupted by another cop who chose to use his gun. The one who was punished is the one who failed to maintain the status quo.

Fellow white folks, we benefit the most from this, and ignoring the problem is the same as being complicit in the tragedies produced by the system. Anti-gun legislation advocates claim that if good people have guns, they will be able to stop all the bad guys with guns. Again, this is classic valuing of intent over impact. If someone intends to take out an active shooter by channeling Liam Neeson in Taken, then that’s the end of the discussion, since good intent trumps negative results. But it isn’t anyone’s intent — it is the intent as determined by the powerful.


Kristance Harlow is a writer, researcher and journalist — and sometimes all three at the same time. She’s a loudmouth intersectional feminist and advocate for awareness of mental illness, domestic violence and addiction. Her grams once told her, “I can see you marrying Indiana Jones.” She responded, “I’d rather be Indiana Jones” and promptly obtained her master’s degree in archaeology. Originally from no-town USA, she has planted roots in India, England, Scotland, Argentina.

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