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One takeaway from Glenn Loury’s meditation is the central role of narrativity in our shared civic life. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City are moments of singular complexity, yet they are imprisoned within simplistic stories of heroes and villains. These stories warp our sense of each other and our understandings of what can and should be done to make our society more just.
Loury describes a cycle whereby social structures gain their form and function: narrative begets policy, which in turn reinforces and embodies the narrative. We learned from the Civil Rights Movement that a focus on facially unjust laws is vitally important but insufficient to break this cycle. Explicit racism has largely vanished from American discourse and law, but implicit racism continues to fester. Consider the persistence of implicit racism in terms of an education—specifically, a curriculum that defines who is a real citizen and who is not and therefore whose humanity commands compassion, safety, and regard, and whose does not. Criminal justice reform requires not only facially fair policies and laws, but also an end to the dehumanization that today’s narrative of civic identity fosters.
Through their everyday actions, police single out certain citizens as an undesirable class.
Just like a public school, the criminal justice system offers lessons on what it means to be a citizen. Some of the lessons, such as those found in the Constitution, are formal and explicitly convey concern for rights and protections of individual autonomy, privacy, and bodily integrity against the unconstrained discretion of legal authorities. But the formal curriculum does not exist in a vacuum. It is taught alongside a hidden curriculum.
In schools the hidden curriculum can be found in the choice of mascots, who sits next to whom in the cafeteria, and whether boys and girls are encouraged equally to speak up in science and math class. On the street the hidden curriculum of policing is determined by how people are treated in interactions with law enforcement. Too often the hidden curriculum of policing strategies sends certain citizens clear signals that they are members of a special, dangerous, and undesirable class, even when police claim only to be doing their jobs—fighting crime on behalf of impoverished and disproportionately minority communities.
Research concerning the social psychology of procedural justice makes more legible the consequences of a world in which the formal and hidden curricula of justice are at odds with one another. Decades of study demonstrate that people care a great deal about how they are treated by legal authorities. They care more, in fact, about the quality of their treatment than they care about the outcome of an encounter. People want to be treated with dignity and respect. They want to be heard in encounters with legal authorities, on the street and in the legislative chamber. They want to know that legal authorities make fair and fact-based decisions. And they are always on the lookout for signs that they can trust legal authorities to behave benevolently toward them. This last factor is constantly informed by history and can be difficult to change.
Recent killings in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere illustrate this disjuncture between formal and hidden curricula, but violence is not the only means by which authorities impart their covert lesson. New York’s stop-and-frisk program, which was recently held unconstitutional, is an example. So are overly punitive criminal laws and mass incarceration, both of which not only spring from but also reinforce dehumanizing and racist narratives of civic identity. These same narratives are constructed by health and education policies, employment laws, and the rules governing housing and urban planning. They appear in the private sector as well.
The need for narrative reform in the way that Loury outlines is great—in street policing and in legislation. Because the challenges are large, activists must be resolute. In that sense, the raw outrage across the nation may be an important step toward a renewed social contract. But without asking how public policies not only monitor but make citizens, Americans are unlikely to achieve any lasting progress.
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