Devon W. Carbado
excerpted from: Devon W. Carbado, (E)racing the Fourth
Amendment, 100 Michigan Law Review 946-1044, 947-964 (March, 2002)(374
I remember the very day I became colored. Zora Neale Hurston
If there were no black people here in this country, it would have
been Balkanized . . . . But in becoming an American, from Europe, what
one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me--it's
nothing else but color . . . . So in that sense, becoming an American
is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me. Toni Morrison
It's been almost two years since I pledged allegiance to the United
States of America--that is to say, became an American citizen. Before
that, I was a permanent resident of America and a citizen of the United
Yet, I became a black American long before I acquired American
citizenship. Unlike citizenship, black racial naturalization was always
available to me, even as I tried to make myself unavailable for that
particular Americanization process. Given the negative images of black
Americans on 1970s British television and the intra-racial tensions
between blacks in the U.K. and blacks in America, I was not eager, upon
my arrival to the United States, to assert a black American identity. My
parents had taught me "better" than that.
But I became a black American anyway. Before I freely embraced that
identity it was ascribed to me. This ascription is part of a broader
social practice wherein all of us are made intelligible via racial
categorization. My intelligibility was skin deep. More particularly, it
was linked to the social construction of blackness, a social
construction whose phenotypic reach I could not escape. Whether I liked
it or not, my everyday social encounters were going to reflect standard
racial scripts about black American life.
And in fact they did. I was closely followed or completely ignored
when I visited department stores. Women clutched their purses upon
encountering me in elevators. People crossed the street to avoid me. The
seat beside me on the bus was almost always racially available for
another black person. Already I wanted to be a black American no more.
But that racial desire was at odds with my racial destiny. There was
nothing I could do to prevent myself from increasingly becoming a black
American--and more particularly, a black American male. Resistance was
futile. The politics of distinction or self-presentation strategies with
the intra-racial signification, "I am not really like other black
people, I am the new Negro," was not going to help. Out of racial
necessity, my black identity developed one racial interpellation after
another. My collective dis-eminence was inevitable.
Nor could I count on colorblindness to protect me. That veil of
ignorance became only too transparent. Colorblindness, I would come to
learn, is precisely what prevents African Americans from becoming black
no more. Its racial ideology casts all of us in the ongoing national
drama, "An American Dilemma."
Like many black Americans, I developed the ability to cope with,
manage, and sometimes even normalize certain micro-aggressive racial
encounters. I have come to view them as incidents in the life of a black
person, part of the racial mystique of life--the thing that has a name:
the colorline. Indeed, today I consider it an aberration every time I
manage to escape the normality of interpersonal, everyday racism.
I have not, however, been able to normalize my experiences with the
police. They continue to jar me. The very sight of the police in my rear
view mirror is unnerving. Far from comforting, this sight of justice
(the paradigmatic site for injustice) engenders feelings of
vulnerability: How will I be over-policed this time? Do I have my
driver's license, insurance, etc.? How am I dressed? Is my UCLA parking
sticker visible? Will any of this even matter? Should it?
And what precisely will be my racial exit strategy this time? How
will I make the officers comfortable? Should I? Will I have time--the
racial opportunity--to demonstrate my respectability? Should I have to?
Will they perceive me to be a good or a bad black?
These questions are part of black people's collective consciousness.
They are symptomatic of a particular colorline anxiety: a police state
of mind. This racial dis-ease is inflicted on black people ostensibly to
cure the problem of crime. Its social effect, however, is to make white
people feel good about, and comfortable with, their own racial identity
and to make black people feel bad about, and uncomfortable with, being
My first racial episode with over-policing occurred only two weeks
after I purchased my first car: a $1500 yellow, convertible Triumph Spit
Fire. I had been living in America for a year; my brother had been in
the States for under a month. It was about nine p.m., and we were on our
way to a friend's house.
Our trip was interrupted by the blare of a siren. We were in
Inglewood, a predominantly black neighborhood south of Los Angeles; a
police car had signaled us to pull over. One officer approached my
window; the other stationed himself beside the passenger door. He
directed his flashlight into the interior of the car, locating its beam,
alternatively, on our faces. The characters: two black boys. The racial
stage was set.
"Anything wrong, officers?" I asked, attempting to discern
the face behind the flashlight. Neither officer responded. Against my
racial script, I inquired again as to whether we had done anything
wrong. Again, no response. Instead, one of the officers instructed,
"Step outside the car with your hands on your heads."
Effectively rehearsing our blackness, we did as he asked. He then told
us to sit on the side of the curb. Grudgingly, we complied. Though we
were both learning our parts, the racial theater was well underway.
As we sat on the pavement, "racially exposed," our backs to
the officers, our feet in the road, I asked a third time whether we had
done anything wrong. One officer responded, rather curtly, that I should
"shut up and not make any trouble." Perhaps foolishly, I
insisted on knowing why we were being stopped. "We have a right to
know, don't we? We're not criminals, after all."
Today I might have acted differently, less defiantly. But my strange
career with race, at least in America, had only just begun. In other
words, I had not yet lived in America long enough to learn the ways of
the police, the racial conventions of black and white police encounters,
the so- called rules of the game: "Don't move. Don't turn around.
Don't give some rookie an excuse to shoot you." No one had
explained to me that "if you get pulled over by the police "[n]ever
get into a verbal confrontation . . . Never! Comply with the officer. If
it means getting down on the ground, then get down on the ground. Comply
with whatever the officer is asking you to do." It had not occurred
to me that my encounter with these officers was potentially life
threatening. This was one of my many racial blind spots. Eventually, I
would develop my second sight.
The officer discerned that I was not American. Presumably, my accent
provided the clue, although my lack of racial etiquette--mouthing off to
white police officers in a "high-crime" area in the middle of
the night-- might have suggested that I was an outsider to the racial
dynamics of police encounters. My assertion of my rights, my attempts to
maintain my dignity, my confronting authority (each a function of my
pre-invisibility blackness) might have signaled that I was not from here
and, more importantly, that I had not been racially socialized into, or
internalized the racial survival strategy of, performing obedience for
the police. From the officer's perspective, we were, in that moment,
The officer looked at my brother and me, seemingly puzzled. He needed
more information racially to process us, to make sense of what he might
have experienced as a moment of racial incongruity. While there was no
disjuncture between how we looked and the phenotypic cues for black
identity, our performance of blackness could have created a racial
indeterminacy problem that had to be fixed. That is, to the extent that
the officers harbored an a priori investment in our blackness (that we
were criminals or thugs), our English accents might have challenged it.
At best, this challenge was partial, however; racial inscription was
inevitable. The officer could see-- with his "inner eyes"
--that we had the souls of black folk. He simply needed to confirm our
racial stock so that he could freely trade on our blackness.
"Where are you guys from?"
"The U.K.," my brother responded.
"You were born in England?"
"Uhmm . . . ." We were strange fruit. Our racial identity
had to be grounded.
"Where are your parents from?"
"The West Indies."
We were at last racially intelligible. Our English identity had been
dislocated, falsified--or at least buried among our diasporic roots.
"How long has he been in America?" the officer wanted to
know, pointing at me.
"About a year," my brother responded.
"Well, tell him that if he doesn't want to find himself in jail,
he should shut the fuck up."
The history of racial violence in his words existentially moved us.
We were now squarely within a sub-region of the borders of American
Blackness. Our rite of passage was almost complete.
My brother nudged me several times with his elbows. "Cool
it," he muttered under his breath. The intense look in his eyes
inflected his words. "Don't provoke them."
By this time, my brother needn't have said anything. I was beginning
to see the white over black racial picture. We had the right to do
whatever they wanted us to do, a reasonable expectation of uncertainty.
With that awareness, I simply sat there. Quietly. My brother did the
same. We were in a racial state of rightlessness, effectively outside
the reach of the Fourth Amendment. The experience, in other words, was
disciplinary. Although I didn't know it at the time, we were one step
closer to becoming black Americans. Unwillingly, we were participating
in a naturalization ceremony within which our submission to authority
reflected and reproduced black racial subjectivity. We were being
"pushed" and "pulled" through the racial body of
America to be born again. A new motherland awaited us. Eventually we
would belong to her. Her racial burden was to make us Naturalized Sons.
Without our consent, one of the officers rummaged through the entire
car--no doubt in search of ex post probable cause; the other watched
over us. The search yielded nothing. (No drugs.) (No stolen property.)
(No weapons.) Ostensibly, we were free to leave.
But what if the search had resulted in the production of
incriminating evidence? That is, what if the officers' racial suspicions
were confirmed? Would that have rendered their conduct legitimate? Would
they thereby become "good" cops? Would that have made us
"bad" blacks--blacks who confirm negative stereotypes, blacks
who are undeserving of public sympathy, blacks who discredit the race?
One of the officers asked for my driver's license, which I provided.
My brother was then asked for his. He explained that he didn't have one
because he had been in the country only a few weeks.
"Do you have any identification?"
"No. My passport is at home." We both knew that this was
the wrong response.
The officers requested that we stand up, which we did. Pursuant to
black letter law, or the law on the street for black people, they forced
us against the side of the patrol car. Spread-eagled, they frisked and
searched us. (Still no guns.) (Still no drugs.) (Still no stolen
The entire incident lasted approximately twenty minutes. Neither
officer provided us with an explanation as to why we were stopped. Nor
did either officer apologize. By this time, I understood that we were
not in a position to demand the latter, even as I did not understand
that, in some sense, the entire event was racially predetermined. The
encounter ended when one of the officers muttered through the backof his
head, "You're free to go."
"I said you can go now."
And that was that. The racial bonding was over (for now). I wanted to
say something like, "Are you absolutely certain, Officer? We really
don't mind the intrusion, Officer. Do carry on with the search.
Honest." But the burden of blackness in that moment rendered those
thoughts unspeakable. Thus, I simply watched in silence as they left.
The encounter left us more racially aware and less racially intact.
In other words, we were growing into our American profile. Still, the
officers did not physically abuse us, we did not "kiss
concrete," and we managed to escape jail. Relative to some black
and Blue encounters, and considering my initial racial faux
pas--questioning authority/asserting rights--we got off easy.
Subsequent to that experience, I have had several other incidents
with the police. In this respect, and like many black people, I am a
repeat player. While each racial game bears mention (as part of a
broader informal naturalization process that structured the racial terms
upon which I became American ), I shall recount only one more here. This
encounter, too, occurred on my way to American citizenship. And, like
the first, it facilitated my (intra)racial integration into black
Two of my brothers and my brother-in-law had just arrived from
England. On our way from the airport, we stopped at my sister's
apartment, which was in a predominantly white neighborhood. After
letting us in, my sister left to perform errands. It was about two
o'clock in the afternoon; my brothers wanted some tea. I showed one of
them to the kitchen. After about five minutes, we heard the kettle
whistling. "Get the kettle, will you." There was no answer. My
other brother went to see what was going on. Finally the kettle stopped
whistling, but he never returned. My brother-in-law and I were convinced
that my brothers were engaged in some sort of prank. "What are they
doing in there?" Together, we went into the kitchen. At the door
were two police officers. Guns drawn, they instructed us to exit the
apartment. With our hands in the air, we did so.
Outside, both of my brothers were pinned against the wall at
gunpoint. There were eight officers. Each was visibly edgy, nervous and
apprehensive. Passersby comfortably engaged in conspicuous racial
consumption. Their eyes were all over our bodies. The racial product was
a familiar public spectacle: white law enforcement officers disciplining
black men. The currency of their stares purchased for them precisely
what it took away from us: race pleasure and a sense of racial comfort
and safety. This racial dialectic is a natural part of, and helps to
sustain, America's racial economy, an economy within which racial bodies
are differentially valued, propertized, and invested with so cial
meaning. No doubt, our policed presence confirmed what the on-looking
racial interpellaters already "knew": that we were criminals.
The officers wanted to know whether there was anyone else inside. We
answered in the negative. "What's going on?" my brother-in-law
inquired. The officer responded that they had received a call from a
neighbor reporting that several black men had entered an apartment with
guns. "Rubbish, we're just coming in from the airport."
"Do you have any drugs?"
"Of course not. Look, this is a mistake." The officers did
not believe us. We were trapped inside their racial imagination --the
heart of whiteness. (Quite possibly they were as well.) The body of
evidence-- that is to say, our race--was uncontestable. We were
uncovered. At the very least we were race traffickers. Our only escape,
then, was to prove that, in a social meaning sense, we were not what,
phenotypically, we quite obviously were: black.
"May we look inside the apartment?"
"Sure," my brother in-law "consented."
"Whatever it takes to get this over."
Two officers entered the apartment. After about two minutes, they
came out shaking their heads, presumably signaling that they were not at
a crime scene. In fact, we were not criminals. Based on "bad"
information-- but information that was presumed to be good--they had
made an "error." "Sometimes these things happen." At
least, they were willing to apologize.
"Look, we're really sorry about this, but when we get a call
that there are [black] men with guns, we take it quite seriously. Again,
we really are sorry for the inconvenience." With that apology, the
officers departed. Our privacy had been invaded, we experienced a loss
of dignity, and our blackness had been established--once more--as a
crime of identity. But that was our law- enforcement cross to bear. In
other words, the police were simply doing their job: acting on racial
intelligence. And we were simply shouldering our racial burden:
disconfirming the assumption that we were criminals. No one was really
injured. Presumably, the neighbors felt a little safer.
My eyes followed each officer into his car. As they drove off, one of
them turned his head to witness the after-spectacle: the four of us
(racially) traumatized in the gunned-down position they had left us. Our
eyes met for a couple of seconds, and then he looked away. It was over.
The racial transaction--routinized social power freely expended upon
black bodies--was complete. Another day in the life, for the police and
We went inside, drank our tea, and didn't much talk about what had
transpired. Perhaps we didn't know how to talk about it. Perhaps we were
too shocked. Perhaps we wanted to put the incident behind us--to move
on, to start forgetting. Perhaps we needed time to recover our dignity,
to repossess our bodies. Perhaps we knew that we were in America.
Perhaps we sensed that the encounter portended a racial taste of things
to come, and that this experience of everyday social reality for black
Americans would become part of our invisible life. Perhaps we understood
that we were already black Americans, that our race had naturalized us.
Perhaps we knew that this naturalization was fundamentally about race
and place, a project in social positioning that rendered us the racial
embodiment of social transgression.
We relayed the incident to my sister. She was furious. "Bloody
bastards!" She lodged a complaint with the Beverly Hills Police
Department. She called the local paper. She contacted the NAACP.
"No, nobody was shot." "No, they were not physically
abused." "Yes, I suppose everyone is alright."
Of course, nothing became of her complaints. After all, the police
were "protecting and serving." We, like other blacks in
America, were the unfortunate but necessary casualties of the war
against crime. We were impossible witnesses to police abuse. Eventually,
we would learn that within America's racial environment, policed black
identity is a natural and national resource. It is the raw material for
a nation-building project to make America feel safer--ostensibly for all