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The ‘Affluenza’ Teen vs. the Value of Black Life

Ethan Couch
CBS News screenshot
Ethan Couch
CBS News screenshot

As the year crawls to a close, it is fitting that Ethan Couch has been captured. Couch, if you don't remember, was the teen who, in 2013, killed four people in a drunken-driving crash in Texas and paralyzed another person but got off with 10 years' probation after his attorneys argued that the wealth he was born into didn't allow him to grasp the consequences of his actions. The answer to Couch's consequence-less life was for the justice system to give the then-16-year-old no consequences.


Couch would subsequently be seen at a beer bong party­—a violation of his parole—and flee the country with his mother, who reportedly threw her son a going-away party, because of course she did. Speed up to Monday: They are both captured with bad haircuts, and even worse dye jobs, in a seedy condo in Mexico. According to reports, they will be brought back to the U.S. to face charges, and again, the white teen, who killed four people and paralyzed one person, is looking at serving a whopping 120 days in prison.

He will be out in less than four months.

Couch's capture came on the heels of news that no one would be charged in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was gunned down by a timid white cop in Cleveland who had a shaky history, at best, with his gun handling and who shot Tamir seconds after arriving on the scene.


All of this—the grand jury's decision not to charge anyone in Tamir's death, and Couch's capture and expected slap on the wrist—is a fitting tribute to a bizarre year of black death, and a toast to a morally bankrupt justice system that will keep Black Lives Matter activists employed for years to come because it is so horrifically flawed that there is no fixing it.

If you, too, are puzzled by the value placed on white male life, don't bother investing the energy to figure it out. The best way to view it is to imagine a fair life and then look at your skin and throw that imagined fair life out the window if you're black. In the season of Santa, I must say it: There is no Claus. There is no justice in this system.

Here is how justice in this country works: A 16-year-old black kid is accused of stealing a backpack. He is taken to one of the most notorious prisons in the country. His family is too poor to post his bail. So the teen is left in jail, without trial, for three years. Once he is released, he is an adult. His innocence is gone. In June of this year, he committed suicide.

Another 16-year-old kid—white—gets drunk, kills four people and argues that his affliction is wealth. The court agrees … you know the rest.


My interest here is not in damning the kid who received the second chance. It's more about coming to grips with two bricks that are embedded in this country's foundation: For black kids, there are no second chances, and white lives—specifically, white male lives—matter more. They always have.

Think about it this way: We have seen countless deaths this year at the hands of white cops. Some of those officers have been indicted, but most haven't, and all have argued that they felt their lives were in danger, and in turn, the courts agreed. The presence of blackness is enough to create fear for white safety, and therefore shooting, choking and tasing black life into submission is not only warranted but also upheld and justified by a legal system that agrees with this racist ideology.


My father once gave me a long speech after I flagged down an officer when I lost my mother in a mall. He was happy that I was safe, but he didn't want me searching out police in moments of fear. "Find a store worker who can help you," he said. Difficult lessons for a child to take in; the world was bizarre to me then. It all seemed strange to me, these talks about safety and whom to trust. The funny thing is, some 30 years beyond that day, the world seems much stranger to me now.

I am not hopeless, though, because I hold on to a belief that the coming years will be better. But I can't act as if the history of this country isn't weighted against those whose skin is "different" and who never seem to be on the right side of justice.


Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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