LawMaking Critical MovesDevon CarbadoTitle: Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles
Education: J.D., Harvard Law School; B.A., University of California, Los Angeles
Age: 38Devon Carbado has by any measure had an enviable career. He’s one of the country’s most respected critical race theorists — indeed, he helped found UCLA law school’s critical race theory concentration, the first of its kind in the nation. He’s been honored for excellence in teaching, by both his peers on the faculty and by the students at the law school. And he’s risen to the rank of full professor at UCLA — all before the age of 38.
But there’s one aspect of his career that’s not as widely known. Along with everything else, Devon Carbado is a community-college success story.
“I’m from a working-class family from the Caribbean and England,” Carbado says, explaining that his mother was a catering manager and his father was an electrician. Though “there was definitely the expectation that all the kids would go to college, there was no indication that (academia) was something that I would ultimately do — certainly not teaching.”
As a young boy, Carbado says he entertained vague dreams of becoming a pilot. By the time he entered West Los Angeles Community College at the age of 18, those dreams had firmed and shifted, and medicine was looking like an attractive career choice.
And then he found his way to UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program (AAP) for students transferring from the community-college system into the four-year system. Carbado stresses that AAP was a transitional program. “It was never presented to us in any way as remedial” — and he adds it was life-changing for him. “I’d found the perfect trajectory.”
After participating in the summer program, Carbado worked as a tutor for incoming AAP students and participated in its rich social life: the reading groups organized around thinkers like bell hooks and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the film screenings and the lively discussions that took place afterward.
Both in its formal and informal aspects, the program, he says, “helped to cultivate a sense of academic confidence and intellectual independence.” By the time he was nearing graduation, Carbado had begun to realize that academia “was really what I wanted to do with my life.”
He was strongly drawn to the notion of getting a Ph.D. in history. “But I’d just broken the news to my parents that I wasn’t going to med school. That had been a shock — and the thought of telling them that I was going on to grad school, and I’d be there for another five or six years, well…” Carbado chuckles faintly at the memory, allowing his voice to trail off.
Law school was a compromise solution. “My hope was that I’d be able to explore the same issues of equality and social justice that I would have had I gotten that Ph.D. in history,” he says. Plus, law would provide the kind of security that his immigrant parents had stressed for all their children.
So Carbado left California for the ivied walls of Cambridge and Harvard law, where he distinguished himself — he was editor in chief of the Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, a member of the board of student advisers and winner of the Northeast Frederick Douglass Moot Court Competition — and where he also found, somewhat to his surprise, that his training at UCLA in issues of social justice was invaluable.
It was during his third year in law school, as he began to meet more scholars who were dismantling some of the key assumptions of legal education through critical race theory, that he began to feel a growing commitment to pursuing a career in teaching law. He took a brief detour into private practice, at a downtown Los Angeles firm, but the experience only stiffened his resolve.
Carbado found his way back into the academy through a fellowship at the University of Iowa that was specifically designed to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities on law faculties. He had his first article published during that time.
At his wife’s urging, Carbado decided to take a visiting professorship at UCLA. It proved to be the best possible choice, both socially and professionally — particularly given the profound synergies between his work and that of key figures in the founding of critical race studies such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Jerry Kang and Carole Goldberg.
Through conversations with his UCLA colleagues and with frequent collaborators, G. Mitu Gulati of Georgetown University law school, and Donald Weise, an independent scholar and writer from New York City, Carbado has built an enviable record of publication and lecturing on this complex and controversial topic.
Fortunately for Carbado, it appears that taking risks, following his passions, has brought nothing but rewards. For example, his second book — Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction, which he co-edited with Dr. Dwight McBride and Weise, won the 2003 Lambda Literary Award for best new anthology. And his most recent work, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, also co-edited by Weise, was favorably reviewed by the New York Review of Books.
Carbado credits his wife’s support and encouragement for shaping him as a scholar. “She provides critical feedback on everything I do. Because she, too, is a Black immigrant to the U.S., from Eritrea, she helps me think about Blackness in a global sense.”— By Kendra Hamilton
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