The Pathologies of Privilege

Everyone knows privilege is a rotten thing. But should it be excised or democratized?

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Long before he fled to Mexico sporting a hastily dyed goatee, Ethan Couch was already a deeply unsympathetic figure. One night in 2013, when he was 16 years old, Couch drunkenly plowed a truck into a group of people, killing four of them. Hauled before a Texas judge, Couch offered one of the most notorious excuses for a brutal crime since “If the glove doesn’t fit” or the “Twinkie defense”: Couch’s crime was caused by an ailment known as affluenza.

Affluenza, a disease not recognized by any of the prominent medical manuals, is a novelty portmanteau of the words “affluent” and “influenza,” and refers to a phenomenon whereby rich children become so spoiled that they become incapable of restraining themselves from indulging their every impulse. As the psychologist testifying in Couch’s defense explained, from the earliest days of his upbringing, Couch had been raised without limits. Couch’s father, who owned a prosperous suburban roofing company, had let his son do precisely as he pleased. At the tender age of 13, Ethan was allowed to drive himself to school alone in his father’s truck. When the principal of the Anderson Private School pointed out to the older Couch that this might be unwise, the father “threatened to buy the school.” Couch’s mother was no less indulgent, reportedly supplying her son regularly with Vicodin.

All of this, argued the psychologist, turned Couch into a creature incapable of understanding that people “should” or “shouldn’t” do certain things, that there are acts, such as causing deadly accidents while driving drunk, that are considered “wrong.” Indeed, witnesses at the scene of the crash reportedly heard Couch bragging to his passengers that he could get them out of any legal trouble, and the victims’ families were shocked when he expressed no remorse whatsoever for killing four people. Raised in an environment where none of his actions had ever brought him so much as a scolding, Couch must have been puzzled by the very idea that people would hold him responsible for causing the deaths.

And so when Couch was sentenced, the judge appeared to take the “affluenza” diagnosis into account, letting Ethan off with probation and a required stint in a rehab facility. Nationwide outrage ensued, with Couch’s punishment being seen as absurdly light, and Couch himself becoming the poster boy for the rich, white, and privileged. The decision had been made, though, and Couch went free.

But Ethan Couch couldn’t even satisfy the extremely generous terms of his probation; after two years, a video surfaced of Couch playing beer pong at a party. Faced with the possibility of serving a prison sentence for failing to comply with the requirement that he not drink, Couch then went on the lam. He and his mother fled to a resort town in Mexico, where he was finally caught after reportedly spending thousands of dollars at local strip clubs. Three years after his crime, Couch finally faced the possibility of serious prison time.

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It is tempting to see Ethan Couch as being emblematic of every inequality in the American justice system. Couch was the ultimate unaccountable brat, hurting people in whatever ways he pleases and then accepting no responsibility whatsoever. However we slice the thing, it is difficult to care about him.

In the language of progressivism, Couch seems like an extreme case of “white privilege.” “Privilege” is a popular term referring to the “set of unearned benefits” that accrue to someone because of their membership in an advantaged group. If you’re white, you’re simply more likely to catch a break than if you’re not. Many of us probably suspect that if Couch had been a poor black teenager, he would have been far less likely to receive a probationary sentence after killing four people.

The available evidence strongly suggests that this is indeed the case. By now, the horrifying statistics on black incarceration rates have long since ceased to actually horrify. A black man has somewhere between a 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned in his lifetime, as compared with 1 in 17 for a white man, and there are more black men under the custodial control of the state (including probation and parole) than were enslaved in 1850, with a total of nearly one million African Americans imprisoned.

In criminal courtrooms, race is depressingly salient in sentencing decisions. The United States Sentencing Commission found that “prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes.” While blacks are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs (about 10% of both racial groups consumes illicit substances), blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested. In capital cases, the race of the victim and the race of the defendant are two of the most important variables predicting whether the death penalty will be imposed. Statistics like these cannot be explained away by differences in the rate at which people of different races commit crimes; the precise same level of criminality results in different levels of punishment.

But it’s a mistake to just look at a single institution, like the criminal court system, in order to understand the continuing salience of race in American life. The heap of privileges that accrues based on skin color has a multitude of components, and the small instances of discrimination are pervasive. Researchers have found that a white job applicant who states he is a convicted felon is more likely to receive a callback for an interview than a black applicant with a clean record. And black applicants from Ivy League schools are less likely to receive callbacks than white applicants from less socially prestigious institutions. Landlords, too, were much less likely to respond to African American applicants.

Similar studies have shown race-based differences in how doctors judge the degree to which a patient is responsible for their health outcomes. (If you’re black, you’re irresponsible. If you’re white, you’re helplessly afflicted.) Two political scientists even found that white state legislators were far less likely to respond to emails from black constituents (the finding applied to legislators in both major political parties).

Looming over all the other disadvantages is wealth. Black Americans have lower median incomes than white Americans. But the difference becomes far more extreme when we look at the wealth people hold rather than just the incomes they receive. According to the Pew Research Center, the median white family in the United States was about 13 times wealthier than the median black family in 2014. A typical white family has over $100,000 in assets, while a typical black family has only $7,000.

The term “white privilege” is useful insofar as it captures the way the sum total of these differences creates a kind of “web” of disadvantage, in which being white just tends to make life much easier in a multitude of ways, both large and small. The theory does not say that for certain, without a doubt, in all circumstances that one’s life is going to better of if one is a straight white male. There are homeless white veterans and phenomenally wealthy black women. There are white defendants that receive unfairly heavy sentences, and black defendants who receive leniency.

But the existence of exceptions doesn’t disprove a tendency, and to be black in America means experiencing constant daily reminders that You Do Not Belong. It means being followed around and searched in your local deli even when you are one of the most recognizable world-renowned actors (as in the case of Forest Whitaker). Or it means coming home from an academic conference celebrating your scholarly achievements, only to be suspected as a burglar and arrested on the doorstep of your own home (as happened to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates). Ta-Nehisi Coates describes racism in modern America as a day-to-day experience of physical exhaustion that bores deep down into the soul. “White privilege” means being free from all of this.

Given the differential system of racial privileges, then, it is understandable that “white privilege” has taken on such resonance among progressives. Activist literature is full of exhortations to “check” one’s privilege, and privilege itself is treated as a fundamentally unfair and unjust entitlement, a mechanism by which one race maintains its dominance over the others.

But in this respect, “privilege” has a serious drawback as a way of helpfully explaining the social world. Privilege, because it is the fount of racial injustice, becomes self-evidently bad, something that one should be against. To possess privilege is to participate in the reproduction of inequality. Yet many of the social assets classified as “white privilege” are actually good things, to which human beings ought to be entitled. That which is granted to white people as a “privilege” should not be treated as a “privilege” at all, but as part of the basic dignity of all human-to-human interaction and taken-for-granted courtesy.

Consider a recent article from “EverydayFeminism.com,” a fairly typical exemplar of progressive discourse. The author describes six indicators that one has “class privilege.” These include: 1. Waking up well-rested. 2. Paying for a convenience (such as deciding to buy a coffee so as not to have to make it). 3. The ability to call in sick. 4. Having reliable transportation. 5. Being paid for all of the hours that one works. 6. Being able to buy healthy food.

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The author is, of course, right that poor people can’t be assured of these things, and that to have money confers an extraordinary amount of additional comfort and security in ways that often go unrecognized. But there is something disturbing about using the word “privilege” to describe something as basic as getting a good night’s sleep. Being well-rested seems like something that all human beings ought to deserve as a right. By classifying something as basic as “not having one’s wages stolen by one’s employer” as a “privilege” instead of a right, one erodes the degree to which such a guarantee should be universally expected by all.

Take the Ethan Couch case. Couch’s “lenient” sentence was met with outrage, because he was given rehab and probation after causing four deaths. This was seen as a clear case of privilege. And indeed it was, insofar as Couch would have been less likely to get such a sentence if he had not been of such a moneyed background and such a marshmallowy complexion. But hatred of Couch easily blurs the difference between “his sentence was unfair because he received it on account of his race” and “his sentence was unfair because it was too lenient.” In fact, the sentence Couch received was perfectly fair. Couch was a teenager who had driven drunk. There were horrendous consequences to his irresponsibility, but Couch killed people negligently rather than premeditatedly. Sending him to rehab, and then giving him a full decade of probation (during which time any offense would result in his imprisonment), seems an entirely appropriate punishment for someone whose actions were grossly reckless rather than actually malicious.

Couch’s punishment was an injustice, of course. But it was an injustice because only Couch and people like him get the benefit of leniency, not because leniency is itself inappropriate. It is not unfair that Ethan Couch was given probation, it is unfair that Ethan Couch’s black counterpart would likely have been sentenced to spend half his life in a cage.

The same was true in several other recent cases of “white privilege” in the criminal justice system. Last June, after a 22-year-old white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, he was treated with courtesy by arresting officers. When transporting the shooter to the station, police placed him in a bulletproof vest (in case he was attacked). Then, and most controversially, police bought him a hamburger from Burger King, because he had not eaten.

The police’s treatment of the Charleston shooter was instantly taken as a case of “white privilege.” If the shooter had been black, ran the criticism, he would have been slammed against the police car and tossed into the backseat like a sack of mulch. If the shooter’s black equivalent had asked for a bulletproof vest and a hamburger, officers would have laughed in his face, and possibly administered a beating.

All of that was true. But it’s also the case that criminal defendants deserve to be treated as the Charleston shooter was. If they haven’t eaten, somebody should bring them some food. A humane country feeds its prisoners. If they could be in danger because their crime was high-profile, measures should be taken to protect them. In the Charleston case, the injustice committed was not the granting of a hamburger to one individual, but the denial of hamburgers to others.

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It can be hard to admit this. The Charleston AME shooting was so horrendous, and the defendant such a monstrous and hateful individual, that it is easy to feel rage upon thinking of him munching on a Whopper compliments of the Charleston Police Department. Imagining him smugly devouring it, one cannot help but want to knock it out of his hand and pummel him to a crimson pulp. These are understandable instincts. But they are also our worst instincts; it is our least rational self that fantasizes about vengeance. And to be scandalized by injustices against black defendants does not mean one should wish it on white defendants instead.

That concerning tendency became very clear in a recent case involving a Stanford University athlete, who was witnessed raping an unconscious woman. The athlete, Brock Turner, was given a six-month sentence (plus probation) and required to register as a sex offender. Prosecutors had asked for Turner to receive six years in prison, but the judge, Aaron Persky (himself a former Stanford lacrosse player), rejected the recommendation.

When Turner’s victim released a harrowing statement describing the assault, and Turner’s lack of remorse, the case became a nationwide scandal. An effort was launched to recall Judge Persky for his “undue leniency.” Turner became the latest poster boy for “white privilege,” an individual who believes himself free to violate and dominate whomever he pleases without having to fear any major consequence. Turner’s father was derided for his alarming statement that Turner was having his life ruined over “20 minutes of action” and for remarking that prison would have a “severe impact” on Turner.

But while the Turner case certainly illuminated the existence of “white privilege,” it also demonstrated some limits of the “privilege” framework. Those scandalized by Turner’s sentence were progressives, but they began voicing sentiments somewhat contrary to the ordinary progressive position on punishment. After all, it is typically rare for those on the left to (1) advocate recalling judges for being too lenient (2) mock the idea that prison has a severely negative impact on defendants and (3) demand more prison time. Very few of those who condemned the judge, and supported Turner’s victim, said explicitly how much prison time they wished Turner had been given. But it was an odd position for people on the left to put themselves in. After all, prisons themselves are dens of rape and abuse. To advocate that a young person be sent to prison, no matter how privileged that person may be, is to advocate something that should be meted out only sparingly and with extreme restraint, if at all.

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Critiques of white privilege can therefore slip into the very callousness that we are attempting to critique in the first place. If white people are perceived to experience “undeserved” advantage, then creating a world of just deserts will involve removing those advantages. But if those “advantages” are necessities rather than luxuries, we may bizarrely find ourselves advocating to take away things we support. If only white people get fair criminal procedure, with a presumption of innocence, we could remove white privilege by giving everyone an extremely unfair system, but it’s hard to believe we would have successfully increased the amount of justice in the world.

In June, at a Disney resort in Orlando, a small child was killed by an alligator. The boy had been splashing about in the water at the edge of a manmade Disney lagoon (though there were signs warning against swimming), before being snapped up and carried of. The alligator death was a national news story; it was devastating to imagine the pain of the boy’s parents, their inevitable trauma and grief and guilt. But one internet commentator put things differently, saying: “I’m so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a two-year-old being eaten by a gator because his daddy ignored signs.”

That heartless sentiment was only expressed by a select few online. But it shows the moral reasoning toward which “white privilege” analysis can lead, if it is not combined with empathy and a belief in people’s common humanity. The Disney toddler’s parents would surely trade every last scrap of their racial advantage for another moment with their son; white privilege offers small comfort when your child is being eaten by an alligator.

While “white privilege” is an important concept, then, it can have terrible pitfalls. It can lead to a belief that whiteness versus non-whiteness is the end-all determination of the human experience. At the extreme end, it can let us believe that grief itself can somehow be mitigated by privilege. But the benefits of privilege, as the alligator case shows, are limited. Often, privilege just means getting something, like a good education, that should be guaranteed.

The problem with privilege is not that it is an undue luxury, then. It is that all do not share in it equally. A failure to recognize that causes a doomed political strategy; it results in critiquing those who have privilege rather than granting it to those who do not. That means dragging entitled people down rather than lifting non-entitled people up; it’s a bit like responding to the racial disparity in death penalty sentences by resolving to kill more white people rather than to kill fewer black people. Indeed, that’s not as absurd as it sounds: Bill Clinton once professed himself very concerned by the racial differences in federal cocaine sentences (majority-African American crack users are more harshly punished than majority-white powder cocaine users), only to later announce that he supported raising powder sentences rather than decreasing sentences for crack. You can always fix inequality by making everyone equally miserable.

Certainly, some kinds of privilege are more “zero-sum.” A number of “privileges” operate like positions in a queue, where if I am near the front, you are necessarily near the back and vice versa. If I have $100,000 and you have $7,000, the only way to address my privilege may be to redistribute some wealth from me to you. But for those things, like fair criminal procedure, that can easily be given to all equally, “white privilege” matters less than black disadvantage.

Racial inequalities are pervasive in the United States, and take the form of both micro-level miseries and massive structural obstacles to economic and physical security. But privilege itself is a better thing than is traditionally supposed; everyone deserves privilege in abundance. The question is not how privilege can be eliminated, but how it can be democratized.

Illustrations by Benjamin Saucier

Author: Z.W. Rochefort

is a sociologist based in the American Midwest.