How colorblind courthouse language reconstructs racial division.
In the vernacular of court culture, defendants are identified by vulgarities: “scum,” “piece of shit,” “bad guys”—even “banana suits” (which refers to the jail jumper that defendants in custody must wear in court). One term predominates among these epithets. That term is “mopes,” used mostly to refer to defendants but sometimes used to describe professionals as well. The meaning inscribed in this term is central to the moral rubric applied to defendants by courtroom professionals.
The meaning inscribed in this term—"mope"—is central to the moral rubric applied to defendants.
Work ethic, competency, and motivation are central elements of court culture. Efficiency and speed of disposition provide daily evidence of the court professional’s work ethic. Not surprisingly, plea bargains rather than trials define this proverbial machine of efficient justice, and judges and prosecutors pride themselves on efficiency. Prosecutors specifically, when surveyed about the qualities and values inspiring “disrespect” in the Office of the State’s Attorney, overwhelmingly reported “laziness” in a fellow prosecutor as the worst quality—even worse than “incompetence.”
“Mope” is shorthand for a person who violates these values. Professionals find it difficult to regard a defendant as anything but a mope. By the professionals’ logic, if someone was motivated, hardworking, and competent, he or she would not be charged with a crime—especially one like dealing drugs, stealing, or other common nonviolent felony infractions that define the court docket. Thus these criminal charges signal not a type of criminal act but a type of racialized being.
In daily courtroom interaction, “mope” is most often used for defendants, but during interviews with attorneys and staff, some also used the term to refer to professionals. As one attorney explained:
I’ve always understood mope to be something of a catch-all term for someone that you have a low opinion of for one reason or another. Within the 26th Street vernacular, pretty much anyone can be a mope—a defendant, a witness, a lawyer, a deputy, even a judge. I think I hear it used most frequently when the speaker is trying to communicate that he/she thinks someone else isn’t very bright, [is] undermotivated, or [is] a ne’er-do-well.
On the surface, “mope” is wielded on an equal-opportunity, race-blind basis. Anyone, even a judge, could be a mope for his or her incompetence or lack of motivation. For instance, exercising basic due process rights like conducting motions or calling witnesses could warrant the “mope” label for slowing the pace of the court call.
Yet, with defendants, additional racialized narratives accompany the term—narratives often associated with readily available racist ideology about the cultural failings and negative stereotypes of blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos. According to court professionals, being a mope is a conscious choice. Given the bleak conditions of the jail, if a defendant is convicted for violating probation, he made the incompetent “choice” to live like an “animal,” to “roll around in shit,” and be “trash.” Defendants who fall into this category, regardless of their personal circumstances are thus dehumanized and are seen as deserving their plight.
Akin to the historic “white man’s burden” to socialize a racialized underclass, professionals similarly view their role in the criminal courts as one of sorting and managing an underperforming population: The child-like mope is seen as a burden whose failings, incompetence, and laziness are placed on the shoulders of the professionals. What results is a paternalistic righteousness and resentment about working in a sector of the legal profession that places many of society’s burdens on their backs. When I overtly asked a prosecutor about her views of the role of poverty and crime, she responded in anger:
I’m just sick and tired of them living off my back. The way I see it is as long as there is a McDonald’s “Help Wanted” sign in the window, there’s a job for them.
Here, the prosecutor leverages a common welfare trope that positions poverty as a symptom of moral failings rather than a reflection of larger social and economic inequalities. In the view of the prosecutor, the defendants that she processes are parasitic—living off of her “back” because of their lack of work ethic.
By encoding racial divisions with symbolic meaning about violating the shared moral values of hard work, competence, and motivation, obvious racial divisions are applied in a way that is all but invisible to professionals.
In contrast, white defendants were, by default, outside the mope construct of degenerate, lazy, and undeserving. They were innocent until proven guilty of being a mope. Yet, whiteness did not automatically gain one favor. They had to “prove” their whiteness by exhibiting an upper-middle-class demeanor that shared common ground with the professionals who governed the courts. This upper-class white privilege changed the very meaning of criminal charges. Whiteness allowed a defendant to be seen as “ill” rather than criminal.
As a result, criminal charges like possession of a controlled substance, driving under the influence, or retail theft were symptoms of “illnesses.” These white defendants were hitting their “rock bottom” moments, at which their addiction or mental illness cast them into the prison system along with common criminals. Rather than being viewed as a pattern of criminality, their experience was seen as the seminal turning point in their recovery—a passing episode that would scare them straight. In these cases, judges and prosecutors were complicit, disciplining white defendants into recovery, much like an intervention. They made efforts to protect “college kids’” futures and carefully considered the consequences of charging and sentencing for employment prospects, expungement, or professional reputation.
By encoding racial divisions with symbolic meaning about violating the shared moral values of hard work, competence, and motivation, obvious racial divisions are applied in a way that is all but invisible to professionals. The codes become shorthand categories to quickly sort and categorize the worthy from the unworthy and the moral from the immoral. By providing special aspirational considerations for white defendants (taking into account how education and employment prospects would be impacted by a particular verdict), for example, court professionals created a segregated, privileged pipeline to channel wealthy white defendants into rehabilitation options or less-punitive alternatives like probation. This protected the white defendants’ futures, which the professionals viewed as valuable.
Paradoxically, when you ask the professionals about race and the criminal justice system, they claim they do not see race; they see only a case. There are many consequences to this seemingly race-blind code. First, it allows racism to exist in the courthouse space without professionals being “racists.” This code provides a veil of impunity where racism is not only tolerated but morally justified. This is similar to the persistence of racism that exists in the rhetoric surrounding the deserving and undeserving poor. In this environment, mopes are the most “undeserving”—so poor, lazy, degenerate, and “child-like” that they are criminal. Coding racial divisions in this way, with a moral rather than a racial rubric, allows professionals to ignore the ubiquity of race and racism. As their logic goes, disdain for defendants is ostensibly based not upon the color of their skin but upon the moral violations they embody. Once race is coded out of the picture, a host of ultimately race-based abuses become permissible under the putatively colorblind law.
This post was adapted from Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court.