Blogbook -- "Reasonable Suspicion" and Literacy Classroom

Entry 13 

In this discussion of racist discourse and its function in literacy classrooms, let’s consider something that seems far removed from that classroom: the legal standard for “reasonable suspicion.” Police officers are supposed to use reasonable suspicion as a way to determine if they should detain someone temporarily in order to figure out if a crime has been committed. This could include stopping someone and frisking the outside of their clothing for a weapon. This legal definition produces an orientation and set of habitual behaviors that police officers use in order to do their jobs. The non-profit organization, Flex Your Rights, explains: “the reasonable suspicion standard requires facts or circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has, is, or will commit a crime” (note 79). 

But what does “reasonable” mean in this instance? The Supreme Court decision of Terry v. Ohio (1968) established the standard for “reasonable suspicion.” In his majority decision, Justice Earl Warren explained: “in justifying the particular intrusion the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion” (note 80). So reasonable suspicion is kind of an equation. 

Reasonable Suspicion = reasonable inferences specific articulable facts + circumstances from

This equation should prompt a number of important questions for any citizen: 

  • In the popular U.S. consciousness, who is the exemplar of a “reasonable person”? Is that person a man, woman, or nonbinary? Is the person Black, White, Asian, Latine, Indigenous? 
  • How does that reasonable person think or speak? 
  • Who most often seems suspicious to that reasonable person? 
  • What exactly are the markers of “reasonable” inferences, articulable facts and circumstances that warrant suspicion in such situations for most police officers? 
  • What makes for good, “rational inferences” that a police officer may make from the alleged “facts” they think they see in a particular situation? 
  • Who racially speaking has often decided these markers? Who does not get to decide? That is, what group of people have historically made such decisions around who is reasonably suspicious and why? 

We know the answers to these questions. White men have made these decisions. The patterns are clear and strong. Ninety percent of all local police department chiefs in the U.S. are White, and 97% are men (note 81). And none of these White people need to be racist in intention in order to perpetuate the racist discourse as a set of habitual practices. We also know that everyone, White, Black, Latine, Indigenous, Asian, rich, poor, working class, male, female, nonbinary, Christian, atheist, and so forth have implicit biases of all kinds, no matter their expressed political or ethical beliefs. Most notable here are the racial implicit biases, the ones most likely affecting police officers’ habitual practices and behaviors that are determined by the standard of reasonable suspicion that unfairly harms Black citizens. 

Racial implicit biases are hidden biases that we all have, given the society, language, and stories we tell ourselves, and that create Black men, for example, as dangerous and therefore suspicious (note 82). We have implicit racial biases because racism is a discourse, a field around us all the time. And because it’s so normal, it’s hard to see. It even feels right because it’s the norm. 

Implicit biases are thus a set of hidden structures in our brains that come from the messages and narratives in our society. Racial implicit biases, like others, work from implied stereotypes and categories, ones we are not conscious of. Here’s how The Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity define implicit bias: 

implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations. (note 83)

It’s not hard to see how racial implicit biases come from the racist discourse I’ve been discussing, only now the biases can be either explicit or implicit, either intentional or hidden in our fast thinking. Many are buried in our non-racial language, such as “reasonable suspicion.” This distinction is nicely made by Gordon F. Goodwin and Sarah Lawton's presentation on advancing racial equity in libraries. They highlight a simple but useful distinction between explicit and implicit bias (note 84).

Their presentation also offers slides that explain the layering of racism in society and life, from individual racism, to institutional racism, to structural racism (slides 40-44). And none of this racism is easy to change, but it is possible (note 85). This makes standards like reasonable suspicion dangerous, deadly for Black people, and racist in their consequences, if we are not very, very careful in how we deploy them. We don’t escape our histories of racist discourse so easily as wishing them away, or leaning on our good intentions or so-called neutral policies.

Now, imagine you are a police officer in an area where mostly Black citizens live and commune. Most if not all of the people you interact with are Black, so you’re always looking for reasonable suspicion among Black people around you -- even if you are Black yourself. Most or all of those whom you have determined committed a crime were and will be Black, given the neighborhood. This can lead to the problem of “fast thinking” that says, “what I see is all there is to see,” which then allows you to falsely determine that most Black people are suspicious, dangerous, and likely criminals (note 86). 

On top of this, like most people, you have a racial implicit bias that sees Black men as dangerous, or at least suspicious, even if you are Black. So beyond the problem of mostly White people, like Earl Warren and all those police chiefs, dictating what reasonable suspicion is and can be, beyond how that language creates habitual behaviors that reinforce racist outcomes, beyond the implicit racial biases that we all use to make judgements, there is also the fast thinking we all engage in that tricks us into believing that what we see in front of us is all we need to see to make important decisions quickly. Racist discourse is overdetermined and hard to escape, especially if we deny or ignore it, as is often done with logics and policies like “reasonable suspicion.” 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes.

Consider an habitual reading behavior or practice you do all the time, and how it may affect what or how you read or engage with the texts you read. Maybe it’s a ritual as you read, like having a pencil in your hand to mark, or sitting in a particular chair, or always at a table, or even a time of day that you find best for reading. 

What do you do and what does that habitual reading behavior allow you to do or think as you read? How does it allow you to engage with the text you are reading? How might it create and inhibit access to aspects of a text, or provide you only certain ways of engaging with a text?

Reasonable suspicion creates orientations and habitual behaviors that make most Black people reasonably suspicious to police officers who are trained in the Whitely policies of police departments and the justice system. Additionally, the habitual practices this standard creates do not provide ways to examine or understand the conditions those officers are in that afford them one choice: find suspicious people in an almost all Black area. This means it is legal to stop and frisk just about any Black citizen whom an officer comes upon, and legal to use force, even deadly force, should they seem to resist. The standard of reasonable suspicion creates a social and material field around police exchanges with civilians that participates in racist discourse, which ultimately produces the domination and killing of Black people in U.S. society. 

One often used criterion for reasonable suspicion is that a person fits a description of a suspect. How is that “fitting” determined much of the time, and how could one’s racial markers, being Black, speaking Black English, be the primary way in which a police officer might determine reasonable suspicion? Or how might one’s Black racial markers make a police officer think he sees something suspicious, such as a cell phone that looks like a gun, or evasive or threatening words (note 87)? How might the long standing traditions of the black raven, of Black criminality, and Poe’s sinister raven who withholds something from the White authority play into a police officer’s fast judgements of reasonable suspicion? 

 We usually blame bad police officers who make poor choices in the heat of the moment, but really, we should be blaming racist discourse. It is a larger system that makes up the legal standard of reasonable suspicion and the habitual behaviors it produces in police officers, as well as the implicit racial biases that go unexamined in police training, and of course, our fast thinking that creates errors in judgement that often get formed from the materials of that same racist discourse? I’m not however suggesting we let off the hook police who do such violence. I’m saying such violence can only be fully understood and addressed, if we understand it as participating in racist discourse. It’s the system working as it is designed. If we are antiracist in our orientations as teachers, we gotta dismantle that flawed system and design new ones, ones that take into account bias and the politics of language and its judgement. 

Ultimately, power relations are generated in the systems that such racist discourse uses and circulates to do other things, like wage wars, form boundaries, police citizens, create choices for rulers and those people they rule over, or offer entertainment or critique in a poem or TV show, a Tweet or news article. This is because racist discourse and racism as outcomes in the world are mutually reinforcing (I’ll say more about this in the next section). And so, Said says that Orientalism “is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness . . . Western empire.” Those forces are economic, cultural, spiritual, material, martial, educational, and historical, as well as linguistic.


This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.