Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education


"A profound meditation on citizenship, race, and the astonishing transformative power of true democracy."—Toni Morrison

"Danielle Allen has given us a foundational work for the reconsideration of the meaning of citizenship in our time. She is a worldly Rawls, a Myrdal from our midst, and like them she is not afraid to see the world anew."—Earl N. Shorris

An interview with
Danielle S. Allen
author of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education

Question: For a book about citizenship you begin in what might seem an unlikely place: in front of Central High School in Little Rock in September of 1957, where Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine black students enrolled in the school that year, is trying to attend the first day of class. What is important about that moment in time?

Danielle S. Allen: A few years back, when I was researching this project as part of my study of citizenship, I investigated an argument about desegregation between philosopher Hannah Arendt and novelist Ralph Ellison. Those famous photos from Little Rock were at the center of their debate. A quick Google search to determine the provenance of those images turned up hundreds of pages containing them. A remarkable number of those sites were for school curricula. Whatever else our kids are learning, all across America in all kinds of schools they are all spending concentrated time with the image of Elizabeth Eckford being cursed by Hazel Bryan. (See photo of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan.)

If we believe Plato that the images and stories we feed our children affect them for life, then that photo is setting the coordinates of citizenship for the next generation. Even if we don’t believe Plato, it’s clear, from the recurrence of the image in school curricula, that the photo has achieved iconic status on the same level as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The claim that the Little Rock photos are equivalent to two foundational texts seems implausible to some adults. That’s because they weren’t kids in the ’90s when this image was actively taught in public and private schools all across America.

There’s a second reason that I was drawn to this photo as a starting point: It shows the sacrifice of a daughter. Elizabeth in the first instance, but Hazel, too, really. Elizabeth is walking a gauntlet, surrounded by hatred, and Hazel has taken the hatred inside her. They’re at the end of their young lives; they survive, but as marked adults.

Sacrifices of daughters have been central to a number of stories about the founding of new orders. Agamemnon could not sail for Troy and win the war that would give Greece its identity until he obeyed the command of the goddess Artemis to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to her. In the Old Testament the Israelite tribe banishes Jephthah, a bastard, until they need his military prowess during a war. They invite him back, promising him rule if he will fight for them. He rejoins the Israelites and in the middle of the battle vows to God that he will sacrifice the first thing he sees when he returns home. Who comes out to greet him first? His daughter, of course. She agrees to die to protect his promise to God and his new rule. The six-year rule of Jephthah is founded on his daughter’s self-sacrifice.

The Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all use the story of Jephthah in elaborating the social contract they consider the basis of legitimate political order. The Little Rock photos resonate with our imagination because they tap, I believe, into deep cultural memories about daughters sacrificed to bring new worlds into being. It is a disturbing irony that in myth those who might one day give birth to new generations are instead made to give birth to new social orders. When we look at the photo of Elizabeth and Hazel, our buried memories of stories like those of Iphigeneia and Jephthah’s daughter whisper to us that a new order is coming into being out of their experience.

Q.: One of the key points of your book is to argue that self-sacrifice is a critical part of citizenship. The sense of sacrifice that we see reflected in the political landscape these days is usually the sacrifice made by soldiers in war. What forms of sacrifice are you talking about here? Why have we lost sight of that part of ordinary, everyday citizenship?

Danielle S. AllenAllen: The sacrifices of soldiers are important, should not be forgotten, and deserve honor. We don’t even need the lesson of current events to know that. As a society we have well-developed habits and practices for honoring soldiers, firefighters, and police officers. We may not do all we should, but we do expect to build monuments to their heroism and to read their names out one by one.

We are not, however, very good at seeing some mundane sacrifices, and we certainly don’t honor them. Our economic policies ask all kinds of sacrifices of citizens, which we only nervously acknowledge. When the Federal Reserve decided to increase interest rates in the spring of 2000 to slow down an “overheated” economy, its members expected that their actions would, among other things, generate new unemployment. Now, we may all be comfortable with the notion that slowing the economy and generating some unemployment is good for everyone, even for those who will now find themselves unemployed—even the newly unemployed may accept the macroeconomic arguments justifying the policy—but this does not diminish the pain or difficulty that the newly unemployed may experience. That they endure it and persevere in seeking jobs and abiding by the law is also a sacrifice.

Or let me offer an example that’s closer to my own home. In the 1950s and ’60s the administration of the University of Chicago was worried that the increasing poverty of the South Side Chicago neighborhood, which had recently evolved into a primarily African-American area, would scare parents and cut into student enrollments dramatically enough to endanger the future of the university. The administration considered moving the university out of Chicago. Instead, it launched an aggressive policy of urban renewal to secure an upper-income, mixed-race neighborhood for itself in its own immediate vicinity. The project displaced at least 3,500 lower-income families, both black and white.

To this day, South Siders interpret the events of the urban renewal period in vastly different ways and are still capable of acrimonious argument on the subject. Some consider the saving of the university such a positive accomplishment that nothing negative should be said about the project. Others consider the losses imposed on those members of the community who had to leave their homes or businesses to be so great that nothing positive should be said about the benefit of keeping a great university on the South Side of Chicago. This is the quintessential situation that arises when sacrifices go unhonored and unacknowledged.

That the University of Chicago stayed on the South Side is a good thing and provides us opportunities now to pursue a racially integrated intellectual world; the human cost of that opportunity, however, is something to consider. The best we can do now to honor the losses then endured is to recover their history, understand their consequences, and develop more democratic methods of determining community development policies.

To begin acknowledging the ordinary, everyday sacrifices of their fellows, citizens must recognize that no plan, no policy, no proposal—even those held dearest—is without cost to someone. Not all such costs will count as sacrifices, but many do, and we need to see them if we are to understand the basis of our social stability.

Q.: This election year—like all election years—there is a lot of political rhetoric about unity and division. As an example, Barack Obama said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention: “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America—there is the United States of America.” In your book you make a distinction between oneness and wholeness. What's important about that difference?

Allen: Yes, Obama invoked the image of our being “one America” in his inspired speech. I understand the aspiration and motivation behind such invocations of oneness, but I believe the term comes conceptually linked with a desire for and drive to homogeneity. We can never achieve such homogeneity, nor should we desire it.

The idea of the “one people” can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes, who wanted to establish an authoritarian state, and the notion of “oneness” was central to establishing the solidity of the sovereign power he proposed. In my view, “wholeness” captures equally well our aim at integrity, at being a group of citizens gladly tied together in a constantly evolving, ever-shifting universe of intricate weave. As you can tell from that image, the term “wholeness” also captures the heterogeneity and constant fluidity of a democratic people.

We can be whole (and healthy, for the word “whole” derives from Old English words for sound health) without ever being “one.” Law understands the value of the adjective “whole” when it talks about the importance of judgments that can make someone whole again, after a violation or injury. I believe democratic peoples, too, should aspire to achieving such wholeness for themselves.

Q.: Why did you want to write a book about citizenship?

Allen: It’s been the main subject on my mind since my teenage years—no doubt the preoccupation arose from arguments with my high school friends about race. Americans are never done arguing about this subject, much as we would all like to be.

I suppose your question is really: why talk about race through an analysis of citizenship? I guess it comes down to my faith in democracy and in the project of resolving our racial woes through democratic procedures. And in my view, democracy boils down not to rights or the rule of law but to citizenship. Rights and the rule of law are indispensable and are a necessary framework to democracy, but the core activity of democracy is citizenship.

Q.: When you talk about race relations—past and present—one of the phrases you use is “interracial distrust.” The phrase appears in sentences where, it seems, one might also use the word “racism.” Is “racism” a word you want to avoid because it is too encumbered with historical baggage? Or does “interracial distrust” capture something missed by the word “racism”?

Allen: “Interracial distrust” does capture something missed by the word “racism.” Most of us use the word “racism” to denote the antipathy of white people to people of color. Though the word can equally well denote negative feelings that flow in other directions, we tend to restrict it to the attention “white” people pay to “colored” people. “Interracial distrust,” in contrast, captures the fact that negative feelings flow all ways across multiple racial and ethnic lines. The world is too full to focus only on how one group of people perceives another group. I am interested in how each of us, individually, interacts with people who are different from us and whom we fear.

Q.: American society is increasingly diverse: racially, ethnically, religiously, economically, etc. Is democracy up to the task of governing such a diverse society—a society which also has a long history of division, exclusion, separation, and subjection of its minority members?

Allen: “Democracy” refers to a set of procedures; it doesn’t “govern” anything or anybody. Democratic citizens govern. The question is, are American citizens up to the task of governing themselves democratically? On this point, I am an old-fashioned progessivist and believe we are getting better at this with every passing decade. We may occasionally step backward as well as forward, but our overall movement is still toward the light. We have a long way to go, of course.

When the country fought the Civil War and shortly thereafter passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, it undertook the project of undoing a racial constitution that had been settling into place for at least 300 years (since 1562, when Britain entered into the slave trade). A constitution 300 years a-building needs at least as long for its rebuilding. Now, fifty years after Brown v. Board, we are only 150 years into that process of remaking the complicated, intricate web of law and custom that put race at the center of our political experience. I’d bet we have another 150 years to go. And if we were ever to undo, once and for all, the racial constitution, I’m sure there would still be other work to do.

Q.: What should democratic citizens, in the first decade of the 21st century, do?

Allen: Ask themselves, when they interact with strangers, whether they have treated them as they would a friend.

Explore political questions by trying to make the best possible argument, on any given question, from the perspective of someone with whom they disagree or whose experience of life in America differs fundamentally from their own.


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Danielle S. Allen
Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education
©2004, 254 pages, 13 halftones, 2 maps
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-01466-1
Paper $16.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-01467-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Talking to Strangers.

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