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Racial Injustice exposed in Chicago’s Courthouse

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Racial Injustice Exposed in Chicago’s Courthouse


Dr. Gonzalez Van Cleve is author of the of the book “Crook County: Racism and Injustices in America’s Largest Criminal Court.”

Dr.Gonzalez van Cleve’s journey began in her early 20s when she first stepped into Chicago’s courthouse. She expressed that as a light skin chicana working in Chicago’s courthouse, she was often assumed to be white and was therefore allowed to pass racially.

Dr. Gonzalez Van Cleve expressed that her light skin provided her access to see how racism functioned among prosecutors and judges. This access allowed her to observe and understand how the court system used racism to process cases within the judicial system. In her book, “Crook County,” she exposes the racial discrimination within the Chicago’s courthouse.

After Dr. Gonzalez Van Cleve’s appearance at the panel, Newsmaker plenary Race: A Conversation, hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) 2016 national convention, I was able to talk to Dr. Gonzalez Van Cleave about her book.

Q: What is “Crook County” about?

A: “The book, “Crook County,” takes readers inside the criminal justice in Chicago, the largest court system in America. I’m documenting how racism works in the criminal courts. It’s stunning to people because we think the due process is fcrookcounty-cover-1-2-16air but what I try to do is to breakdown some of those myths and expectations and take the reader in with my own personal account.”

“What I try to do is report data and findings to show how the courts are abusing people. It starts when I’m 21 and it ends when I leave that court the last time in my late 30s.This shows how deep the layers of racism and justice go, that it takes that long, a decade if you will, to collect enough data so that people would believe the stories of abuse that are happening on American soil.”

Q: When you first entered Chicago’s courthouse, what was your first impression?

A:“My senses were completed assaulted by the number of black and brown men that were paraded by the court.”

“There was this immediate segregation in the courthouse which was, to be a person of color meant that you were a criminal and to be a white person meant you were a professional and you were able to make these moral judgements on people.”

Q: How do the minority communities feel about the courthouse in Chicago?

“In talking to community members, they feel victimized from the moment they walk into that courtroom. It was something that I understood but I didn’t think that mainstream public, politicians would believe these narratives.”

“In order to lend a voice to those communities being abused, I sent 130 researchers in disguise they were dressed like everyday people. Some were people of color and some were white students.”

“These students were stripped of their class and education in order to observe how they would be treated inside those courts. What happened to the white students was that they were assumed to be journalists, no matter how down they dressed, they were always singled out and taken for tours of the court. For the students of color, they were often mistaken for defendants, which showed how rigid these boundaries were.”

“The 130 research assistants documented 1,000 hours of abuse in the courts. Vindicating those voices of the people that said ‘we feel victimized, they don’t take our lives seriously.’” With data, observation, and good reporting this allowed me to make claims in the book of how racism and abuse work.”

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” argues that mass incarceration of African-American males is the new Jim Crow. I asked Dr. Gonzalez van Cleave, “would you say your book, “Crook County,” compliments Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow?”


“Michelle Alexander’s book takes “the larger picture of how laws have segregated, marginalized, and criminalized people of color. What I want to show is how does racism functions as a necessary engine for the processing of criminal justice cases in America.”

screen-shot-2016-08-30-at-10-59-00-amAt the start of the book, I start out saying that Michelle Alexander shows us the disparity on a macro-scale but she also says that one can “close the courthouse doors” to any claims of bias in a colorblind era. I challenge that claim by saying, “open these courthouses. Let’s bare witness to how racism actually functions in this place. I can observe it because, as a social scientist, I’ve collected an enormous amount of data bearing witness to these observations of racism in action.”

“That’s how I hope to build on her project. We need multiple advocates, social scientists, journalists, showing how racism works in our criminal justice system in many different fronts.”

“You are not just experiencing racism on the large scale where we have disproportionate amount of people of color in our jails, but you actually can be racially abused while your due process is occurring. To me that is the most alarming finding, which is that you can be racially abused as you seek justice in our nation.”

Q: As you argue throughout your book that Chicago’s courthouse is unjust, how do you suppose this can be changed?

A: “I think the first thing (is) electing new prosecutors, electing new judges, continuing to have oversight and I think journalists play an important role. They have to go in with a critical lens and give that kind of accountably light.”




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