Black Robes and Blackface


by Jeff Adachi

As public defenders, we witness the racism embedded in the criminal justice system. But seeing it explicitly celebrated at an office party sponsored by judges was a new one on us.

Recently, a whistleblower fed up with the Judicial Council of California’s unwillingness to address bigotry in its ranks leaked photos of the policymaking body’s Halloween party, held at its Sacramento office (see: Judicial Council Party Photos Prompt Racial Insensitivity Complaints).

It was bad. Fake dreadlocks and dark makeup bad. Smiling cisgender man dressed as trans prisoner bad. A grotesque effigy of an inmate on the toilet in a solitary cell bad. We’ll let the images speak for themselves.

Approximately 4o percent of transgender inmates are sexually abused each year — Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics
Three-quarters of female inmates in local jails have mental health problems — Bureau of Justice statistics
69.1 percent of California judges are white. 71 percent of men behind bars are black or Latino.
One in 28 American children has a parent behind bars.
Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement. Many have untreated mental illnesses — The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
The U.S. is the only democracy in the world with no independent authority to monitor and enforce minimal standards of health and safety in prisons.

The idea was an Orange is the New Black theme. But while the Netflix series written by former federal inmate Piper Kerman uses humor to successfully raise issues surrounding mass incarceration, the costumes worn by Judicial Council employees flopped.

That’s because it’s not funny when people who profit from the great, grinding machine ridicule the bodies caught in its gears. It’s no laughing matter that nearly 70 percent of California judges are white while more than 70 percent of people they lock up are black or Latino. It’s not a joke to the more than 5 million children orphaned by mass incarceration. The thousands of innocent people who plead guilty simply because they cannot afford bail aren’t chuckling. They’re too busy trying to find the rare employer who will look past a criminal record.

The Judicial Council of California is an organization that lobbies lawmakers in the interest of judges in the state’s courts. It is also charged with ensuring “the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice.”

From the Judicial Council of California website.

In other words, this wasn’t a “Cinco de Drinko’ party thrown by a fraternity. It was hosted by the very people charged with making sure justice is unbiased.

We should be clear that the non-black revelers who darkened their faces weren’t judges, just staffers. But the Judicial Council of California apparently thought it impressive enough to give them a Best Decorations award and share the photos on the office intranet, before removing them without explanation. They blew off the concerns of an African American longtime employee, then bungled the Council’s Black History Month celebration several months later.

The Judicial Council’s work might sound wonky, but it affects human lives in profound ways. The council is currently lobbying lawmakers to water down Senate Bill10, which would replace the discriminatory money bail system with a system in which pretrial release is determined by empirical data rather than wealth.

Specifically, the Judicial Council complains that SB10 would create “an overly burdensome and complicated system.”

But it shouldn’t be overly burdensome to strive for equal justice.

In fact, that should be the most important part of a judge’s job.

It’s time for the Judicial Council of California to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Preferably without makeup.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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8 thoughts on “Black Robes and Blackface”

  1. Tia Will

    The very fact that no one even saw the possibility of this being very offensive speaks to the acceptability of racial discrimination in our judicial system. If an Orange is the New Black theme was desired ( in itself not objectionable in my opinion) then why the black face ?  Why not just the orange jump suits and jail themed decorations ?  If one wanted a demonstration of implicit bias ( I doubt many of these folks would consider themselves “racist”), one need look no further.

  2. Keith O

    Being the party was held in the Democrat stronghold of Sacramento in California it would be interesting to know how many liberals/progressives were at that party.

    1. David Greenwald

      It’s employees of the Judicial Council, which is suppose to be an oversight body of the judiciary.

      “The Judicial Council is the policymaking body of the California courts, the largest court system in the nation. Under the leadership of the Chief Justice and in accordance with the California Constitution, the council is responsible for ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice. Judicial Council staff implements the council’s policies.”

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