Affluenza & The Inequality of Life Chances

A 16 year old boy in Texas gets drunk, drives his truck 70 mph on a 40 mph road and kills four people who were stopped on the side of road fixing a flat tire, but the boy doesn’t go to prison. In this post Nathan Palmer uses the concept of the inequality of life chances to try to understand this mind-boggling sentence.


What I remember about the fights I saw in junior high school was the standing around waiting for something to happen. Word would spread through the school that so-and-so was going to fight so-and-so right after school ended. I’m not proud of it, but every time I heard about a fight, I’d rush over to the spot it was supposed to happen as soon as the last bell rang; I just couldn’t keep myself from seeing it, like when you drive by a car accident. However most times the fight never happened. We’d stand around and listen to two scared boys puff their chests out and do their best tough guy impersonation.

The only fight I can vividly remember seeing was brutal. The two boys beat each other mercilessly and I remember feeling I’d done something wrong by watching and feeling sure someone was going to get in big trouble for the fight.

I hadn’t even got into the school the next morning when I heard the news. One of the boys had been suspended and he might be expelled at a hearing of sorts later that day. I was floored. First at the thought that someone I knew might get expelled and second because why wasn’t the other boy also suspended?

I asked my first period teacher and she said that the boy who got suspended was, “a real trouble maker[1].” It didn’t seem fair to me. I saw them both brutalize each other. It wasn’t an uneven fight. I pressed the issue with my friends and teachers and the consensus was the boy who got away with it was, “a good kid who made a mistake.” Looking back I should have been more outraged, but all I could think was, I hope if I ever screw up big time that’s what people think about me.

Life Chances

Without knowing it, I learned that day a little something about the inequality of life chances. The sociologist Max Weber argues that to sort people into classes we need to look at their life chances. Life chances can be thought of as the likelihood that you will be able to reach your goals in society. People who have lots of access to opportunities, resources, and who know all the right people would have more life chances than those who don’t. Over the holiday break I saw a news story that is perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of life chances and privilege.

To be honest, I’m at a loss for words. I haven’t met a person who wasn’t outraged by the idea that being spoiled and over-privileged aka “affluenza” excuses four counts of manslaughter. Not going to jail for killing four people is unimaginable. It seems reasonable to say that this young man appears to have unending life chances. His privilege is all the more obvious when we consider that the same judge sentenced a 14 year old African American child to 10 years of detention for throwing a single punch that tragically killed his victim when his head hit the ground.

While this is arguably one of the most extreme cases of life chance inequality, it’s sadly not an isolated case. For instance, between 2002 and 2004 African Americans represented only 16% of the youth population, yet they represented 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the detained population, 35% of those waived from juvenile court to be tried as an adult in criminal court, and 58% of youth admitted to state adult prison. This is clear evidence that at every point in the juvenile legal system African Americans are treated harsher than their peers. Or put another way, African Americans life chances are reduced by a systemic bias in the legal justice system.

I’ve talked a lot about how a person’s social location (i.e. their race, gender, class, religion, nationality, education level, etc.) can affect how they experience the community they live in. Who you are and how your community treats people like you has a profound impact on how likely you are to achieve your life’s goals. Most of the time racial privilege (or privilege from any aspect of a person’s social location) can be hard to see, especially for those are receiving the privilege. However, the “Affluenza” case makes it easy for all to see the inequality of life chances.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What are your thoughts about the “affluenza” case? (I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have a strong opinion about it, so give it to me here).
  2. Think about your life up until now describe one aspect of your life that might have increased your life chances and then another aspect that might have decreased your life chances.
  3. Now think about the people you grew up with. Think of an example of someone you knew who had more life chances than you and someone who had less.
  4. Why is it hard for people of social privilege to see their advantage?

  1. To be completely honest I don’t remember her exact words, but this was the gist of what she said.  ↩