I recently had a few days off from work, and spent some of the time going down memory lane by watching one of my favorite childhood shows: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Watching this show years later, I can now appreciate the social commentary tucked into the show’s writing. One particularly powerful episode is season 1, episode 6: Mistaken Identity.
In this episode, Will and Carlton get arrested on suspicion of auto theft. The back story is that Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian were going to spend the weekend in Palm Springs with Phil’s legal partner, Henry Furth, and Henry’s wife. Henry asks Carlton to drive his Mercedes down to Palm Springs while the rest of them take a helicopter.
Will and Carlton get lost on the road and are pulled over by a white cop. Carlton, in his naivete, says exactly all the wrong things, ignoring Will’s coaching. One particularly disturbing moment is when the cop asks them to get out of the car and Will’s reaction is to immediately go spread eagle against the cop car, while Carlton looks on baffled.
What Will did was what Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, refers to as “assuming the position”:
The militarized nature of law enforcement in ghetto communities [such as the one Will's character grew up in] has inspired rap artists and black youth to refer to the police presence in black communities as “The Occupation.” In these occupied territories, many black youth automatically “assume the position” when a patrol car pulls up, knowing full well that they will be detained and frisked no matter what. This dynamic often comes as a surprise to those who have spent little time in ghettos (125).
That surprise is evident in Carlton, who represents the African American who has adopted white bourgeois culture and believes that the cops are “just doing their job.”
Will and Carlton end up getting arrested because the cop believes they have stolen the Mercedes they are driving, and are only released when Henry, who is white, talks to the cops.
Here is the scene:
When everyone gets home, Will and Carlton get into a heated discussion about what happened. As a pre-law student, Carlton thinks everything could have been avoided if he had just brought a map and he “wouldn’t have [had] to drive two miles an hour trying to find a freeway entrance and [they] wouldn’t have been stopped.” To him, the system works. “What’s your complaint here [Will]? We were detained for a few hours, Dad cleared things up and we were released.” Carlton seems to have missed the fact that the cops’ attitude only changed when Henry showed up.
Carlton’s ingenuousness is reminiscent of a group of University of Chicago law students who were shown what life in Chicago’s ghettos was truly like:
Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago, reports that his students frequently express shock and dismay when they venture into those communities for the first time and witness the distance between abstract legal principles and actual practice. One student reported, following her ride-along with Chicago police: “Each time we drove into a public housing project and stopped the car, every young black man in the area would almost reflexively place his hands up against the car and spread his legs to be searched. And the officers would search them. The officers would then get back in the car and stop in another project, and this would happen again. This repeated itself throughout the entire day. I couldn’t believe it. This was nothing like we learned in law school. But is just seemed so normal – for the police and the young men” (Alexander, 125).
Will summarizes what happened to Carlton after Carlton affirms that they were only stopped because they were driving too slowly:
Oh, okay, okay, I get it now. We were stopped because we were driving too slow. We were breaking the slowness limit. Oh, okay, well, you see, I’ve never heard of that law before. But I did heard of this other law before. It’s called the ”if you see a black guy driving anything but a burnt-out Pinto, you better stop him because he stole it law.” Yeah, I’ve heard about that. Oh, but see, I thought it was the black guy law, when in actuality, it was the slowness limit law. Thank you for sharing that with me, Carlton…You just don’t get it, do you? No map is going to save you, neither is your glee club, your fancy Bel-Air address or who your daddy is. Because when you drive a fancy car in a strange neighborhood, NONE of that matters, they only see ONE thing [Will taps Carlton on the face, indicating his skin color].
Will’s retort points to a common police tactic that became heavily used in the War on Drugs against minorities – the pretext stop, which is completely legal according to The Supreme Court ruling in Whren v. United States. The cops used the pretext of Carlton driving really slowly to stop him and then without any evidence, arrest him for another matter, in this case for alleged auto theft.
The episode ends with Carlton sitting on the couch, alone, pondering the little bit of doubt that has crept into his vision of a perfect world.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has its faults and certainly does play into some stereotypes about African Americans. For a fascinating overview of the depiction of African Americans in mainstream media and a critique of The Fresh Prince, check out this blog post by J. Fred MacDonald, Emeritus Professor of History at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. But I can say that Mistaken Identity has significant cultural worth in raising questions that are rarely brought up in mainstream media: Why does race still play a role in policing and criminal justice? Why do we let it happen?
I hope that any of us who are like Carlton might be willing to question our assumptions, might be willing to open our minds to the possibility that things might be more unjust than they seem, even if you’ve never that injustice directly. I hope that The Fresh Prince and other forms of pop culture might serve as a vehicle for people to start investigating for themselves, to start asking hard questions and in the end, learn through their own research what the truth is.