Race & Punishment in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve/Esteem Brumfield
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Esteem Brumfield: Hello, everyone, I'm Esteem Brumfield, I'm a first year MPH candidate in the School of Public Health and I'm speaking with Associate Professor of Sociology, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, about the recent panel discussion on Race & Punishment in America. Thank you for joining me, Professor.
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: Thank you so much. It's nice to talk with you about these issues.
Esteem Brumfield: Yeah, very excited. So I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about the work you do.
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: Well, I study how the criminal justice system inflicts violence on people, on defendants, on victims, on witnesses. And in some ways does so within the boundaries of the law and sometimes under the guise of due process and justice. My first book was called Crook County and it examined how racial tropes and stigmas are used to process cases efficiently within the criminal justice system, and how mostly white attorneys and judges use racist tropes to, in some ways, wield their discretion within the system. You know, they're really managing the caseload of mass incarceration and how do you efficiently process this many people through the system? Well, largely it's done by violating people's due process rights and when people are deemed either worthy or unworthy based on their racial identity, based on poverty, and other types of intersectional identities, it becomes enormously easy to inflict abuse on people. And so I conducted a decade-long study looking at this in the criminal court system in Chicago, which is the largest unified court system in America, and the data from that really helped to open up the discussion about how courts are impacted by the types of racial violence that we see in policing, that we see happening in prisons.
We think of courts as these sacred spaces where, because of due process, because of the due process protections, or a judge in a robe, or a court record, that these types of abuses can not happen in open court. What I try to show through an enormous amount of data over a really long period of time is that these abuses can happen under the supervision of the law and it extends into many facets. So it's not just the court system, but the practices that happen in the court system also happen in the jail. So that's the next component is that I look at how abusive practices happen, not just within the jail where we would expect it, but even as sheriffs are able to release people. And in some ways their practices can extend beyond the bars and into communities where one would think you're safe or one would think you're free, but the punishment continues to be inflicted.
Esteem Brumfield: Wow. That's powerful. At what moment did you begin to notice that these extrajudicial practices were ubiquitous? Not just in a confined space, but also, as you said, in the courtroom and how they extend into the community. Could you walk us through, what did that look like for them?
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: I was an undergraduate when I started my research so I think for Brown undergrads I am always encouraging people to do their own research very early on in their academic career. I came in with fresh eyes on the court system expecting the law to have a sense of decorum and dignity. I expected to see what we see on television, right, on Law and Order: SVU or all these shows that really misportray how justice is done and what I saw was something quite different. As a young person, the attorneys were more than happy to kind of socialize me into this way of practicing law. They encouraged me not to open up the files, that it didn't matter. They inflicted harsh abuse on the people in the gallery that were there to watch or support a loved one, or even victims. I brought in court watchers to also look at these spaces and at one point there was a child playing with a cell phone next to her mother and rather than telling this young girl to put the phone away or talk directly to the mother, they took this child into the lock up and terrified her. And you can hear her wailing, you can hear her wailing in the lockup and people are terrified in the open court. The mother is under the impression that her child is being taken away and she is crying. And the racial divide between who is allowed to do that type of abuse and who was being the victim of it was entirely based on race. There was mostly white attorneys inflicting this kind of pain upon people, and mostly Black and Latinx folks that were the victims. And so that divide in the courtroom, those encounters that didn't have any legal purpose, but had sociological purpose, meaning if you divide the courthouse into an us versus them mentality, and structurally mass incarceration is so racialized that we're disproportionately impacting people of color. Again, those who are subject to this type of violence tend to be Black and Brown, and those doing the violence tend to be white and also of great stature so they are the attorneys.
So I think, to me, those early insights as a young person were important because it allowed me to ask more critical questions about how we research courts, the types of questions that we answer, the types of variables we consider. Prior to the work that I did it was almost unheard of to do a study on race and law. There were critical race scholars doing work, but the establishment within the social sciences made it really difficult to publish within the center of the field and think critically about how race and racism had a purpose within an organization or purpose within the legal system. Those firsthand observations from when I was much younger as an undergrad and starting this research, they became important because in some ways they didn't match what was promised by the law. Whether it's mass media images, but also what political scientists had told me that I would find when I went into these courts. It looked nothing like the books that were written at the time.
And so I think that an important intervention is that as academics, as researchers, we have to think about are we capturing the true picture of these systems? What are the types of questions we are asking? If we walk in and expect to see a “race blind system” are we already predetermining, in some ways biasing the findings? You've already just said, well, race is not going to matter so you've biased the lens upon which you gaze upon the system. And so those are some of the things that I wanted to change or shake up in the field.
Esteem Brumfield: Yeah, I think you're right on. One of the themes that really struck me the most in reading your work is this idea of time as a form of punishment. It’s that we're having people wait, we're leaving people in a place of ambiguity. When will I be released? When will I be able to see my family? When will I be able to speak to an attorney? How long will this case go on? Could you talk just really briefly about that theme and really how is that theme, as you mentioned, insidiously seeping into the community?
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: For me I remember when I was in the court system, I remember that time was like a currency. You had attorneys kind of “playing with time” so they actually used to play games where they would try to dispose of as many cases as possible and beat other courtrooms. So they say, “how many dispos does courtroom three have? Oh, they've had 15 dispos?” That meant disposed cases, cases where people were going to jail. They’re done. Then someone else would have cases where they’d have more and they’d say, “Oh, well, Judge Collins is doing better than Judge Anderson.” So there was this playing with time by professionals. And a lot of it had to do with we're going to give you so little time that in some ways it showed your lack of worth, like this case is not worth anything. But every case, as I always say, represents a person, represents sometimes a victim and so the cases really do matter. They're not just what the attorneys call, which is dispos, which sounds like something to dispose of like trash, right?
So that was the one area of time, but the other area of time was just this uncertainty that people subjected to a criminal case, or even victims as well. You could be sitting all day in court with little knowledge as to when your case would be called. People were frightened to go to the bathroom, to get a snack. There'd be no food in court so a lot of people were terrified to bring food in and so they just would sit there in fear or go and eat in the hallway or the bathroom, but trying to race back, fearing that if they called their name at any moment that you could forfeit your bond and be thrown into jail. And so that's how it was in some ways weaponized within the court system. And that was kind of an omnipresent theme in Crook County, but when I saw it in the jail it was even worse. So not only are you languishing in jail, that of course is a feature, but once you bail out your loved ones they will hold onto your loved ones for a really, really long time. And I think that's what people don't really understand. I mean, if they run your record, that process will take all day and there's probably a loved one waiting all day. And if you think about a low-income person, these are not the jobs that are flexible, that you can work from home. If you're a bus boy, you're getting fired because you didn't show up. If you're a parent, you don't have childcare. Think of all of the collateral consequences of this confinement that extends beyond when bail is posted.
In one really shocking story a defendant in Cook County who I call “Mario” posted his bond and his mother was waiting for him. She had the audacity to finally just ask the sheriff on guard, “Can you tell me when my son's going to be released?” And after you've been sitting somewhere for six hours it's a legitimate question and probably the frustration is legitimately felt and they mocked her. They brought out a Black defendant and said, “Oh, is this your son?” Just to, in some ways, belittle her and threaten her. And think about the consequences on the other defendant who thought he was going to be released. And then her son went “missing” in the jail system and they kept saying to her, “We don't know where he is. We don't know where he is.” He had vanished to do labor within the kitchen of the Cook County jail.
So those stories were omnipresent. And I think when we think about waiting and what it symbolically means, it means your time and therefore you are not important. It's a way for the state to continue to diminish you. And for anyone who's ever felt the rage going to the DMV to get their driver's license, it's such a small way, but we've all felt that. Doesn't anyone care? Why are people so belittling? Why are people so rude? Right? That's a tiny encounter, but imagine your very freedom being within the hands of these state actors and they're so empowered and their power is so unchecked that they can do this to you and your life.
Esteem Brumfield: And so where do you think we go from here? In my last minute or so, I know it’s a big question.
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: It is a big question, but it's the million dollar question. Where do we go from here? I think we've lacked an imagination to think about abolition and I would admit that in doing this research, I did, too. I couldn't understand what it meant to abolish the prison system or abolish the carceral system. How do we do that moving forward? I was watching a documentary on Abraham Lincoln and they were explaining that he was not an abolitionist. Imagine being alive at that time, he did not have the capacity to see a world in where slavery did not exist and so I think we have to start thinking, what would that world look like? And we can't start thinking of it as a radical dream that is off the table. I think it starts, first of all, by defunding many of these punitive organizations like the police or the sheriff's department. I mean, they are in some ways taking millions of dollars, millions of dollars in settlement fees. I think in Cook County it's $150 million per year and I think to me it's just astounding. There is no oversight for police misconduct, officers are able to inflict an enormous amount of violence without being held accountable. In Chicago they tortured suspects for 30 years resulting in over 120 Black men giving false confessions under torture. Things that read like war crimes and yet we continue to not reform these institutions nor hold them accountable. In fact, we increase our budget and give them more money.
So I think it starts with the capacity to imagine these systems as being totally transformed and then the political willingness to start to make action, to stop funding institutions -- I would say failing institutions, but that implies that they weren't designed to inflict racial violence and I think I show in my work that they do. But I think we need to start investing in things we know will work, that will uplift communities, education and jobs and violence prevention programs and resources for afterschool programs, and all of these things that could replace what policing is doing. I think we can get there, but it's going to be a next generation of people that begin to imagine it.
Esteem Brumfield: I believe we will get there.
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: I do.
Esteem Brumfield: Professor Van Cleve, thank you for joining me today in discussion.
Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: Thank you so much. Thank you so much.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu