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Identity Scripts & Democratic Deliberation

By Holning Lau. Full text here.

This Article contributes to the literature on negotiation of identity scripts. For an example of such negotiation, consider the prominent case of Barack Obama. Commentators have noted that Americans typically perceive President Obama as a black man and ascribe him corresponding scripts—that is to say, socially constructed expectations—for “acting black.” Commentators also believe President Obama has negotiated these scripts to attain and maintain power. The negotiation process entails alternating between performance and rejection of scripted black identity.

Existing literature explores the harmful effects of ascribed identity scripts and prescribes remedies accordingly. While this scholarship generally focuses on the harms suffered by individuals, this Article takes a different tack, illuminating harms at a systemic level—harms to deliberative democracy. This Article posits that ascribed identity scripts undermine democratic deliberation in at least three regards. First, they create barriers to entry, limiting the scope of participants in democratic deliberation. For example, only African Americans who associate and disassociate with black identity scripts in very particular ways can achieve standing on the political stage. By unduly limiting the scope of individuals who successfully mount the political stage, identity scripts undermine the collective ideal of democratic governance. Second, script negotiations distort the deliberative conversations that ensue among political actors because script negotiations often involve self-censorship. Third, identity scripts distort the way communications are received during deliberation. This Article elaborates on these three dynamics and explores how equal protection jurisprudence can ameliorate them.