Nicole Gonzales Van Cleve’s “Crook County” opens with a quotation by the famous African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, pulled from his canonical 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk.”
“Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side of undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination,” the epigraph goes.
“It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man’s conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negros came to look upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims.”
The passage serves as both prophecy and pithy history lesson. And if Van Cleve’s numerous unbelievable accounts of blatant racism are to be believed — and they should; one need only ask the nearest West Side pedestrian for confirmation — the passage should be posted outside of the entrance of the Cook County Criminal Court Building at 2650 S. California Avenue.
Du Bois’s words should symbolize the kind of reckoning one only hopes is waiting for the next Cook County State’s Attorney when she arrives in that office next year. Van Cleve’s 190-page report is based on over 1,000 hours of observing the day-to-day work of public defenders and prosecutors inside of the largest unified court system in the country.
Van Cleve started her nearly 15-year ethnographic study of the court system in 1997 and supplemented it with 104 “interviews with judges, prosecutors, and public defenders and another 1,000 hours of additional observations from 130 ‘court watchers’ trained in collecting qualitative data in the courthouse,” she writes.
What emerges is a study in 21st Century contrasts. According to Van Cleve’s observations, the mostly poor, African-American and Hispanic subjects who routinely circulate through 26th and California (or simply 26th and Cal) are degraded, shamed, disrespected, mocked and exploited by the mostly white, mostly male legal authorities — from the judges to the prosecutors and public defendants.
And yet, a majority of those very legal professionals, namely the judges and the prosecutors, “described the courts as racially blind and felt that there was no discrimination against poor defendants of color.” That’s when the subject of race, an almost unspoken taboo among 26th and Cal’s legal custodians, is brought up at all.
The dominant demeaning trope within the criminal complex, Van Cleve writes, is the “mope,” which is “shorthand for a person who violates” the values of hard work, competency and self-motivation. Virtually every person of color who comes through 26th and Cal is identified as a “mope,” whether by legal professionals or by guards.
In the eyes of the professionals facilitating this daily degradation ceremony, Van Cleve writes, the color of a mope’s skin is incidental to his or her moral inferiority.
“As their colorblind logic goes, disdain for defendants is based not upon the color of their skin but upon the moral violations they embody,” writes Van Cleve, a criminal justice and legal professor. “Given this rationale, crass, racialized humor outside the scope of colorblind racism is acceptable and not based on ‘race.'”
And that, Van Cleave argues, is how colorblind racism operates at 26th and Cal. One can only wonder what this means for the wider world.