Dr. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown University and an affiliated faculty with the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, spoke on how race has shaped criminal justice policy Tuesday at a Racial Foundations of Public Policy event hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy. Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the director of the Center for Racial Justice at the Public Policy School, hosted the event.

Gonzalez Van Cleve’s book, titled “Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court,” won The American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Book Prize, which is the highest book honor in her discipline. Her research focuses on how race affects the experiences of participants in the criminal justice system. 

When asked by Watkins-Hayes why a sociological approach is important to understanding criminal justice policy, Gonzalez Van Cleve said sociology gives insights into the patterns of criminal justice abuse. 

“We saw the George Floyd murder, and in some cases, policymakers talk about this as a one-off phenomenon, that this is a bad apple trope,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “Institutions and cultures are bigger than one individual. If we see them as one individual, we see a tragedy that has happened as an outlier rather than a part of a pattern that in some ways indicates how policing occurs not just in one jurisdiction, but in multiple jurisdictions.”

Gonzalez Van Cleve said the criminal justice system should not be the first respondent to many issues, including addiction and mental health. She said many other institutions can help individuals suffering from those problems instead of prosecuting them right away. 

“When they hear the word criminal justice, they should start thinking, ‘What other institutions could have solved this, what other policies somewhere else could have solved this?’” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Gonzalez Van Cleve said she is a “dramaturgical sociologist” who thinks about the performative aspect of social life. She described border patrol officers “as putting on a performance” when they interact with immigrants.

“It is possible that immigration laws say that we need to round up people that are undocumented, and if they are not citizens they needed to be deported to their home countries,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “There’s probably a more neutral way that it is stated in the law. It does not say to rope people like they are cattle, and yet, those officers have images and cultural scripts about how to do this and to what type of people … I call those performances racial degradation, which is the signal to us that these people are different from us.”

Discussing what students should focus on when they want to help marginalized individuals, Gonzalez Van Cleve recommended a change in mentality by focusing on those in power and how they came to implement the harm they do today.

“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to do harm today,’” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “They want to serve justice, they want to serve their country, they want to protect people. The million-dollar question is how did they become co-opted to do that action and create such harm.” 

Watkins-Hayes brought up the importance of looking back in history and relating past events with the imagery we see in the media today. 

“I think the examples we’ve recently seen at the border of agents trying to round up Haitian migrants on horseback, and the images being very disturbing, and what that invokes for people with the links to slave patrol of the previous centuries,” Watkins-Hayes said. “That kind of criminalizing and way of surveillance and capturing people has a certain historical valence for people that in the present day add a whole nother level of significance for people when they see it on their TV screens.”

Relating her earlier years to her book “Crook County,” Gonzalez Van Cleve shared that when she was a student observing other prosecutors, she noticed the blatant use of racial slurs and derogatory language towards Black people. She then conducted a study that involved sending law students to courts to observe prosecutors, and observed that white students are often given better treatment than Black students. 

“How did this become rationalized?” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “At the heart of the answer is that you have a segregation between who gets to determine justice and who gets to be held accountable to justice. You have mostly upper-class white people making decisions about the morality of people of color.”

Gonzalez Van Cleve also added that prosecutors often used racial tropes to make case processing more efficient. One of the major racial tropes is the mope trope, which is used in drug cases to describe the defendant as lazy and under-motivated, and therefore not competent enough to be a criminal. 

Another racial trope Gonzalez Van Cleve described is the monster trope, which is used in violent crimes where Black men are described as predatory monsters to white women. These tropes are seen as helping to justify the defendant’s actions, but in reality, they are humiliating and detrimental to how Black people are treated in the court, according to Gonzalez Van Cleve.

“Those two tropes became easy handles to justify not just processing cases quickly, but also to justify denying people rights and to abuse the general public,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Relating racial stigma to other social issues, Gonzalez Van Cleve said race is embedded in the media and policy-making through the idea of deserving and undeserving.

“When we start to talk about deserving and undeserving, that’s the signal that you need to start thinking about the racial stigma being associated with those labels,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.