The racism at the ranch, indicative of racism within society at large in the United States of the 1930s, is blatant and ugly. The only black man on the ranch, Crooks is deemed unfit to live in the bunkhouse with the white ranch hands and is consigned to live alone in a small room off the barn where he is isolated from human companionship. He was allowed in the bunkhouse on one occasion, we learn, so that he could be abused and humiliated for the entertainment of the other men. The racism Crooks experiences at their hands is abhorrent; however, it is an encounter in Crooks’s own room that unmasks the truly despicable face of racism, and it belongs to Curley’s pretty young wife.
Hungry for company, Crooks allows Lennie and Candy into his room when they come to visit him. Relating to Crooks as an equal, they share the plan to buy a farm. Race is forgotten, until Curley’s wife appears. Forgetting to remember that he is black, Crooks’s orders her out of his room when she becomes belligerent and insulting. The backlash is immediate. Curley’s wife attacks Crooks in the most despicable display of racism in the novel. Warning him to remember his “place” and stay in it, she reminds Crooks that she can have him “strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny,” implying that she has the power to kill him by accusing him of rape or some other heinous assault. The threat is chilling because Crooks knows it’s true. His word means nothing, and Lennie and Candy’s testimony would not save him from her false accusation.
As Curley’s wife stands over Crooks, her face twisted with rage and hatred, he is terrified, powerless to defend himself against her malice, except by ceasing to be himself and by adopting the subservient persona that keeps him alive in a hostile white society. Withering under her attack, he seems to make himself physically smaller as he withdraws from his environment. Crooks’s dignity is destroyed, and his hope for a new life on the farm is crushed; daring to think of himself as someone other than a black man is too dangerous. The absolute power Curley’s wife wields over Crooks, her deliberate malevolence in using it, and the superiority she feels in reducing him to nothing demonstrate the truly evil nature of racism, a disease that inflicts suffering upon its victims and makes monsters out of those who are infected with it.