Everything about our class trip to the Palacio de Justicia court house was shocking. All participants were casually dressed, the rooms were smaller than I anticipated, people were late to their appointments, the judge missed a hearing, and legal representatives insisted that racial discrimination did not exist in Colombia. And I wasn’t the only person who was surprised that day, as the legal representatives we met with remarked that they were astonished we would even think to ask questions tied to race and the justice system, as if this association had never crossed their minds. Though surprising, this class trip provided the most honest and glaring example of how the average Colombian understands and interacts with race in a proudly colorblind society.
When referring to a colorblind society, I am referring to the way that Colombia, and other Latin American countries, have chosen to brand themselves as a complete mix of cultures and a eutopia of celebrating all people as Colombian. While this sounds fun and inclusive in theory, choosing to promote a colorblind society neglects to acknowledge the systematic and historical structures that have created unequal opportunities for certain groups of people. Instead, they choose to willfully embrace an ideal that all people are equal under the term, Colombian. The unfortunate reality is that even if a person (or an entire state) pretends race based inequality doesn’t exists, there still is racism, unconscious bias and structural systems that secure privilege for some, while minority communities are pushed farther to the margins.
Based on theories, studies and personal testimonies we explored in our classes, we entered the court knowing a main avenue to blatantly perpetuate race based inequality falls in the decisions of the courts. We walked down the halls of the courts house holding statistics of racial profiling, ready to pry into these issues through lively conversation, but were met with a blissful ignorance and stubborn resistance to the existence of these issues.
Previous to our field trip to the court, in class we had discussed the serious lack of representation of Black judges and lawyers within the Colombian legal system. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when the main judge we would be talking with walked in the room and was a Black man. Everyone got really excited, hoping that he would provide a pointed and passionate insight into the racial profiling and overcriminalization of Black bodies we know are occupying the Colombian legal system. Unfortunately, all too quickly we realized that 33 years of legal experience had made him disconnected from these realities. Once we began to question him about racial matters he was quick to shake off our concerns, defensively citing the articles of the Colombian constitution that claim all people are treated equal, instead of engaging in a dialogue about possible bias. He held on to a delusion where he felt that the law was applied to all people and all people were equally impacted by the law.
It was interesting to watch this man, the only person of color amongst a group of about 6 other lawyers, judges and legal aids, so quickly shake off issues about or specific to the Afro-Colombian community. When asked if there was racial discrimination in Colombian society, he answered with a story of his seven siblings that had all worked hard and now had prestigious careers as engineers and doctors and his daughter who was also now a lawyer. Neglecting to mention the privilege, support, and luck that put him and his family in the affluent positions they now occupy, underwrites the reality of the challenges so many other minority people face just because of their skin color. He wanted to merit his success to purely his own work.
Because these judges knew that we were from the United States, some of our conversations turned into comparing and contrasting. Knowing that there is a well-documented racial discrepancy within the legal systems of the United States, one of the white judges insisted on telling us that we had these problems in the United State because we only had “five articles” in our constitution to help interpret the applications of the law while Colombia has hundreds of articles, so there is no problem in making sure everyone gets the same punishments for the same crimes. While this is simply not true, the United States has more than five articles, this also does not factor in the reality that even if there are written laws, how they are played out in society and who is getting convicted is a racial problem.
What continues to baffle me is the fact that in a colorblind driven society, there is a dominate belief that collecting racially based data creates problems instead of helping. Driven by this sentiment, there has only ever been one study collecting the race of people that pass through the legal system within Colombia. It is shocking that this is not a standard part of their data collection. When we asked the judges about this, they said that they didn’t think the judges should collect this information, but that the courts should collect information on the race of the prosecuted and defendants. But the lawyer offered no more thoughts about this issue. I may be naive, but I do not feel like this data collection initiative would be that hard, and I think it’s results would be powerful evidence needed to open these conversations up about race and the criminal justice system.
As we walked out of the court room following this discussion, there was a Black man in handcuffs standing with a guard outside our room. It was a glaring illustration representing the unfortunate reality we know is true, the unproportionate amount of Black men being over-policed and locked up.
The legal system seems to be the system that keeps these cycles of poverty and generational trauma alive in communities of color. It was frustrating being reminded of that directly after having a disheartening conversation with the people responsible for deciding the fates of people and communities every day. They live in a world where they say they don’t see color, and if they don’t see color they don’t have to enter into the realities of inequality and systemic inequalities that perpetuate injustice for communities of color. Everyday, in the courts of the Palacio de Justicia, a colorblind mentality persists, and inequality pushes communities of color further to the margins.