Slurs and Racist Memes Are ‘Only the Tip of the Iceberg’ of Racial Bias in the New York State Court System: Report

Zack Linly

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.”— Kwame Ture

All racism contributes to systemic racism. Individual racism might not be so bad if it stayed confined to your uneducated uncle who works in some gas station in some neighborhood where there aren’t many non-white people, but what about when the racists are police officers, educators, employers, governing officials, or officers of the court?

A recent report on racial bias in the New York State Court system revealed several instances of overt racism expressed by court officers as well as a noticeable difference in the way Black and Hispanic attorneys and defendants are treated by court officials compared to their white counterparts.

According to the New York Times, the report was commissioned by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore amid the wave of national protests that began over the summer against systemic racism in the criminal justice system. The report states that researchers “conducted 96 interviews involving 289 individuals” which included interviews with “former judges from almost every type of court upstate and downstate” as well as “court clerks, court watchers, court officers, court attorneys and administrative personnel, private civil and criminal practitioners, institutional and public defenders and prosecutors.” Ultimately the report found that “in one form or another, multiple interviewees from all perspectives still complain about an under-resourced, over-burdened New York State court system, the dehumanizing effect it has on litigants, and the disparate impact of all this on people of color.”

From the Times:

One white court officer in Brooklyn posted an illustration of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck on social media. Another white officer referred to a Black court officer as “one of the good monkeys.”

A third white court officer commented to a white colleague that he would have done better on a firearms test if he had been given a “Sean Bell target,” a reference to an unarmed Black man killed by the police in 2006.

Jeh C. Johnson, a former Homeland Security secretary under President Obama, led the team that did the review. His report, released with little fanfare last week, found pervasive racism in New York courts, both explicit and implicit, from judges, court officers and lawyers. The accounts of racial bias the team collected bore a striking similarity to testimony in another review from three decades ago, the report said.

“The sad picture that emerges is, in effect, a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State,” Johnson wrote in the report. “This is a moment that demands a strong and pronounced rededication to equal justice under law by the New York State Court system.”

According to the Times, Sgt. Terri Napolitano is the officer who got caught posting a meme that featured Obama with a noose around his neck. She was suspended for 30 days and she remains on paid leave with disciplinary charges pending, court officials said. After the meme appeared on her social media page, three Black court officers sent a letter to Judge DiFiore saying when it comes to the racist behavior of this particular court officer, the memes are “only the tip of the iceberg.” The report stated that Napolitano’s behavior had long been tolerated, which indicates a larger problem: the institutional acceptance of racism in the court system.

The racism displayed by court officers led to the report recommending “more robust bias training for nonjudicial personnel, particularly the court officer community,” but it’s worth noting that researchers found that the behavior doesn’t stay confined to the workplace. It also spills over into how defendants of color and their attorneys of color are treated.

More from the Times:

Mr. Johnson’s team found that some court officers, in dealing with people of color who were defendants, lawyers or the public, were disrespectful, condescending, and at times, racist.

Court officers were heard using racial slurs and berating minority litigants about the clothes they wore. Black defendants were often handcuffed when appearing in court for minor infractions, while white defendants were not, the report found.

Some court officers told the report’s authors they did not report instances of bias out of fear of retaliation from powerful union leaders. They worried that doing so could jeopardize their career, according to the report.

Black and Latino lawyers interviewed for the report complained that they were often mistaken for their clients and made to show identification in order to enter the courthouse while their white colleagues weren’t questioned at all. They claimed they are also “believed less often” when making statements to judges, especially when a defendant is a person of color.

Since report after report after report has documented the racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, none of what’s reportedly going on in the New York State Court system should come as a surprise.

This report serves as a reminder that when racism is given power, the results can be devastating for communities of color.

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