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

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"Don't talk to strangers" is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back t "Don't talk to strangers" is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back to Little Rock, rooting out the seeds of distrust to replace them with "a citizenship of political friendship." Returning to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and to the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, being cursed by fellow "citizen" Hazel Bryan, Allen argues that we have yet to complete the transition to political friendship that this moment offered. By combining brief readings of philosophers and political theorists with personal reflections on race politics in Chicago, Allen proposes strikingly practical techniques of citizenship. These tools of political friendship, Allen contends, can help us become more trustworthy to others and overcome the fossilized distrust among us. Sacrifice is the key concept that bridges citizenship and trust, according to Allen. She uncovers the ordinary, daily sacrifices citizens make to keep democracy working—and offers methods for recognizing and reciprocating those sacrifices. Trenchant, incisive, and ultimately hopeful, Talking to Strangers is nothing less than a manifesto for a revitalized democratic citizenry.  


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"Don't talk to strangers" is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back t "Don't talk to strangers" is the advice long given to children by parents of all classes and races. Today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. In this powerful and eloquent essay, Danielle Allen, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, takes this maxim back to Little Rock, rooting out the seeds of distrust to replace them with "a citizenship of political friendship." Returning to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and to the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, being cursed by fellow "citizen" Hazel Bryan, Allen argues that we have yet to complete the transition to political friendship that this moment offered. By combining brief readings of philosophers and political theorists with personal reflections on race politics in Chicago, Allen proposes strikingly practical techniques of citizenship. These tools of political friendship, Allen contends, can help us become more trustworthy to others and overcome the fossilized distrust among us. Sacrifice is the key concept that bridges citizenship and trust, according to Allen. She uncovers the ordinary, daily sacrifices citizens make to keep democracy working—and offers methods for recognizing and reciprocating those sacrifices. Trenchant, incisive, and ultimately hopeful, Talking to Strangers is nothing less than a manifesto for a revitalized democratic citizenry.  

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Erhardt Graeff

    In Talking to Strangers, political philosopher Danielle Allen diagnoses the persistent problem of interracial distrust in America as a problem of defining and realizing democratic citizenship, i.e. how we are meant to act within our democracy. This is something that our country struggles with from its founding but is brought out most strongly by the Civil Rights Movement. Allen tells the story of how we developed this collective anxiety, diving into the choices of language, philosophy, and value In Talking to Strangers, political philosopher Danielle Allen diagnoses the persistent problem of interracial distrust in America as a problem of defining and realizing democratic citizenship, i.e. how we are meant to act within our democracy. This is something that our country struggles with from its founding but is brought out most strongly by the Civil Rights Movement. Allen tells the story of how we developed this collective anxiety, diving into the choices of language, philosophy, and values that have led us here. Starting with the iconic 1957 photograph of Black high school student Elizabeth Eckford being cursed by a white woman in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen illustrates how the civil rights movement marked a change in the experience of democratic citizenship among Americans. Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act upset a status quo preserving de facto and de jure White dominance. This represented a clear loss of power for Whites, especially in the South. The new law of the land demanded that Whites respect the rights of their fellow Black citizens and curb their deep-set norms of racial inequality. Arguing the Civil Rights Movement was effectively a civil war in the South, Allen suggests that social trust and political friendship at the core of democratic citizenship never recovered. Trust in the federal government declined after it was seen as usurping state and local control by Whites, and trust in fellow citizens declined as the polity was recast as the heterogenous and equal mix it was always meant to be. In this same historical moment, Allen notes that the Pledge of Allegiance was revisited adding “under God” after “one nation,” emphasizing the idea of oneness. The success of this re-wording effort is more than just about religion, Allen argues, it put forward a strong vision of a homogeneous nation. (In the same way, the original pledge was developed to spur national identity during the rise of immigration in the 1890s.) Allen argues that the American predilection for oneness (cf. E Pluribus Unum) ultimately hurts the cause of democratic citizenship and interracial distrust. Because it matters “how democratic citizens imagine ‘the people’ of which they are a part” (p. 17). Customs and practices follow from this imagined body. Allen prefers “wholeness” as the metaphor we should be striving for because it allows for multiplicity, heterogeneity. The toxic reaction to Eckford’s attempt to attend her desegregated school illustrates a desire to reassert oneness. Part the practice of citizenship as either oneness or wholeness is sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice is a virtue of democratic citizenship. We give some of our liberty to the state for protection and accept policies and decisions that serve a majority we may not be a part of. To paint this picture in the age of oneness, Allen dives deeply into Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, reading its political philosophy as a meditation on Black political sacrifice. Eckford’s ordeal in Little Rock represents this same type of sacrifice. In her case, she gives her dignity in that moment to the cause of the larger civil rights movement. There is a long tradition of such sacrifice in the Black community. During Jim Crow, it took the form of subjugation to the domination of Whites. This is an involuntary sacrifice. In this form of citizenship, oneness is preserved through the unequal treatment of the minority. But as Allen argues, sacrifice should be seen as a virtue; it should be respected. A more just and productive form of democratic citizenship respects the sacrifices of others in a polity. Citizens in this case should let sacrifice be a guide to a more mindful politics; they should honor it by finding solutions that listen to the voice of the minority and seek justice for them too. This is the foundation of trust and what Allen calls political friendship. She suggests that friendship should be our guide to what citizenship ought to look like. A friend would listen to another friend even though they don’t agree with them. A friend would consider their friend’s feelings and well-being when making a decision. When a citizen can generally count on another citizen to look out for their interests, this reciprocity is the foundation for social trust and for democracy. This requires that we change our cultural norms to embrace this ideal of citizenship. It also requires that we transform our institutions to enshrine this respect for the wholeness of our nation. Unfortunately, America has yet to change its norms and transform its institutions in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we have retreated to ideological, and in many cases geographical, enclaves and maintained or developed postures of lost oneness. Between these bookends, Allen develops a cogent philosophical critique of the underpinnings of American democracy. She finds a fatal flaw in Hobbes’s formula for government of the people and goes back to the Greeks and to rehabilitate rhetoric from its ambivalent reputation. Across his various writings, Hobbes successfully diagnosed the problems of human nature and politics and even points to how a culture of reciprocity might aid the effort of political agreement (p. 97). However, his prescription for the Leviathan form of government oriented citizens toward the sovereign institution of the state rather than toward one another, which is clearly illustrated in the frontispiece from his publication, wherein citizens' heads are turned toward the sovereign. This conception of the people—subjugating their own power to the sovereign in the interest of security and stability—contrasts with a one of equal, empowered citizenship. In American democracy we imagine the will of the people arising from equitably powered citizens themselves rather than the unitary voice provided by monarch or court. Locke and the founding fathers rejected this form of the social compact in which the people are ruled by the sovereign, and instead adopted a system of limited government. However, the perfectibility of Hobbes's system is still seductive in light of his social analysis that consensus of the multitude’s wills is impossible. For Hobbes, stability and security can be achieved through repression. Alternatively, the promise of American democracy is that popular engagement may secure trust between the multitude and the institutions of government. And most often we see this as being through pure rational discourse among equals. At this point, Allen goes on to propose a possible antidote to distrust and Hobbes's view of the people. She defends the art of rhetoric, following Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s model of a perfectible republic, arguing for the fundamental imperfect nature of politics among individual citizens. In this, Allen also critiques of Habermas’s ideal of dispassionate, consensus-based political discourse. While having such a utopian vision is an important goal to strive toward, Allen notes that unanimity in consensus “idealizes the wrong thing and fails to establish evaluative criteria for a crucial democratic practice—the attempt to generate trust out of distrust” (p. 85). Aristotle offers a favorable comparison between a rhetoric and medicine: “a doctor aims not only to cure as many patients as possible but also to treat properly ‘even those who recovery is impossible.’” “So, too, a rhetorician seeks not perfect consensus but maximal agreement coupled with satisfactory treatment of residual disagreement and those emotions in which it is often registered: anger, disappointment, and resentment” (p. 91). Allen concedes, that the utility of rhetoric can be used for good as well as for ill, just like medicine can be—the Greek debate over sophistry comes from concern over how rhetoric can exploit trust and distrust. However, without rhetoric we lack the foundation for an intersubjective experience of democracy—for reciprocity—whereby we consider the interests of others and appeal to both majority and minority, crafting our arguments through negotiation and affective feedback. In practice, this is a citizenship of political friendship—an orientation toward each other, viewed as equals, and a willingness to empathize, to persuade, and to be persuaded. This also means an acknowledgement of histories of inequality and disempowerment, and an interest in pursuing a restoration of equity for our fellow citizens that can allow us to enjoy the wholeness of our nation. And Allen implores us to make this part of our everyday civic practice.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Brett

    Impressed by an Atlantic article by Allen, I found this book and, intrigued by the title, borrowed it from the library. My rating of it reflects more my struggle with the depth of the book and not a critique of the main arguments, though I was disappointed it didn't not have more accessible, applicable guidance for civic interaction (it's not that kind of book). 'Talking to Strangers' concerns the promise of the Brown v Board ruling to lead way to a new concept of citizenship allowing a negotiati Impressed by an Atlantic article by Allen, I found this book and, intrigued by the title, borrowed it from the library. My rating of it reflects more my struggle with the depth of the book and not a critique of the main arguments, though I was disappointed it didn't not have more accessible, applicable guidance for civic interaction (it's not that kind of book). 'Talking to Strangers' concerns the promise of the Brown v Board ruling to lead way to a new concept of citizenship allowing a negotiation of the loses inherent in democracy (the minority must sacrifice to majority rule). Since there will always be losers in democracy, it is important for them to trust that their participation will result in a greater common good. This faith is engendered by interactions - ‘talking to strangers.’ Beyond this, the book delves into political philosophy - employing words such as ‘imbricated’ and ‘aphastic,’ (while at other times using ‘dog’ as a verb). I did get a greater appreciation for the meanings of Ellison's 'Invisible Man' from reading this. I managed to read past what the author warned to be a particularly deep chapter 5. Some observations: -she prescribes seeking ‘winner take nothing’ outcomes in politics (that the majority never win so much that something is seen as lost for all in the process), -‘political friendship,’ if cultivated, equalizes benefits and burdens and shares power across winners and losers, -friendship is a good metaphor because friends do not keep score, but see the long-term interests of maintained good relations as paramount, -more practically, politicians should employ rhetoric to convert negative emotions to mildness (through acknowledging loss), then move from mildness to goodwill (which should be demonstrated by the speaker and reciprocated), -political audiences are asked to not judge only claims of fact but principles, identify who is being asked to sacrifice by the politician and whether that sacrifice can be reciprocated, and assess whether the speaker is speaking as a friend (as opposed to a condescending authority figure). A lot to think about.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    I've read FOUR chapters and I'm excited. The book reads like a series of well-integrated lectures, and that's a compliment. My ears perked when I realized she was redefining (as in, again defining) citizenship as a relationship between citizens, as well as one between an individual and the state. NEW Questions I'm asking my margins: How can we revive "good citizenship" in its most robust meaning? OTHER questions: Does tolerance as an "ethical norm" exacerbate social, especially interracial, distrust I've read FOUR chapters and I'm excited. The book reads like a series of well-integrated lectures, and that's a compliment. My ears perked when I realized she was redefining (as in, again defining) citizenship as a relationship between citizens, as well as one between an individual and the state. NEW Questions I'm asking my margins: How can we revive "good citizenship" in its most robust meaning? OTHER questions: Does tolerance as an "ethical norm" exacerbate social, especially interracial, distrust? Does strategic diversity? Will interracial distrust be matched or superseded by religious vs secular distrust sometime in the future? Does nostalgia--as the experience of shared experience--have any importance in democratic life? What is the place of shame in democratic life? The great thing about Danielle Allen: I can tell she's questioned my questions and then some.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ft. Sheridan

    Trust, democracy, ethics...right up m'alley. Also, I had a dream about D-Allen once (no MLK joke).

  5. 5 out of 5

    Charnet Nguyen

    Got this book for my COMM class

  6. 5 out of 5

    Will

    An eloquent and important plea for the development of “muscular habits of trust production.” Applicable lessons for every sort of community and institution.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lizzie

    I read this back in 2005 or 2006 for the first time and it left a deep impression. Returning to it eight years later I was captivated all over again. Allen draws from the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Ralph Ellison (especially the enigmatic Invisible Man), Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes among others to construct her argument. In sum, Allen argues that the everyday practices of individual citizens are the bedrock of a functioning democracy and lays out the practices that constitute pol I read this back in 2005 or 2006 for the first time and it left a deep impression. Returning to it eight years later I was captivated all over again. Allen draws from the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Ralph Ellison (especially the enigmatic Invisible Man), Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes among others to construct her argument. In sum, Allen argues that the everyday practices of individual citizens are the bedrock of a functioning democracy and lays out the practices that constitute political friendship, a way of being that generates trust among citizens in preparation for equitably sharing and compensating the sacrifices necessary to keep the community whole. Someone below noted that the chapters feel like a series of lectures- this is very true. Each chapter, focused on a few core texts, builds upon the one before, taking up questions that the previous text could not answer. My favorite is chapter 8, a lovely and compelling reading of Invisible Man. In her last chapter Allen applies her conclusions to the operations of her home institution of the time, the University of Chicago, in a (still-unrealized) call for the university to engage its neighbors through practices that build trust and a sense of community. This book exerted great influence over me, especially in the thought that in our democracy ordinary people every day are asked to make sacrifices for the good of the whole. The problem is not sacrifice per se, but rather when things fall out of balance- we should ask (per Ellison) "Who sacrifices for whom? Are sacrifices voluntary? Are they honored? And are they reciprocated?" If things are in balance then sacrifices are gifts a citizen gives to the broader whole; without balance we fall into patterns of domination and subjugation. "Citizens' distrust not of government but of each other leads the way to democratic disintegration."

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ilias

    The first point of interest about this book is its genre. It begins as something of a historical narrative, going over in depth the story of the Little Rock Nine, and discussing the repercussions of that event (including, Allen claims, the reconstituting of the United States). As the book moves on, it becomes more and more of a treatise on political philosophy. Which was great. I love political philosophy. There are two main works, I would say, which we’ll say influenced heavily her writing. The The first point of interest about this book is its genre. It begins as something of a historical narrative, going over in depth the story of the Little Rock Nine, and discussing the repercussions of that event (including, Allen claims, the reconstituting of the United States). As the book moves on, it becomes more and more of a treatise on political philosophy. Which was great. I love political philosophy. There are two main works, I would say, which we’ll say influenced heavily her writing. The first is Ellison’s Invisible Man, which she discusses in depth. She uses the book’s discussion of the sacrifices made by the Black community to talk about what kind of sacrifices are acceptable, and even necessary to democracy, and what kind result in the perpetuation of distrust between different parts of a community. The second is not one book, but rather the works of Aristotle as they relate to friendship and citizenship. She believes that certain types of friendship are necessary in citizenship to ensure the continued building of trust. When an author discusses other authors as extensively as Allen does Ellison and Aristotle, I expect to find some criticism, or at least a place where the author turns from the path laid by those they’re examining to make their own point. And I didn’t really find that here. It’s definitely the case that neither Ellison nor Aristotle were making the points Allen was making about our country, and certainly not as eloquently. I understand that she was corralling others’ opinions and thoughts into a sort of solution for the problem she was looking at, but I would have preferred if she had been more assertive in presenting her own result. More

  9. 4 out of 5

    Katharine

    I am so thankful to have stumbled upon Danielle Allen - her writing is interdisciplinary, relevant, and accessible. In this book, Allen argues that the language we have been using in our conversations about race is wholly ineffective. Since our nation's founding, our culture has held the idea of a united nation ("one nation") as the ultimate goal. Allen reimagines what our society might be like if we, instead, strived to be a "whole nation." Allen argues that we need a diverse politics, one that I am so thankful to have stumbled upon Danielle Allen - her writing is interdisciplinary, relevant, and accessible. In this book, Allen argues that the language we have been using in our conversations about race is wholly ineffective. Since our nation's founding, our culture has held the idea of a united nation ("one nation") as the ultimate goal. Allen reimagines what our society might be like if we, instead, strived to be a "whole nation." Allen argues that we need a diverse politics, one that doesn't result in citizens who are regularly dominant and citizens who are regularly having to acquiesce. Our society isn't accepting of the dominance/acquiescent politics anymore and hasn't been since the Civil Rights Era. Allen does a thorough close reading of Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" in the middle sections of the book to support her ultimate thesis: political friendship ought to direct our political actions with one another, thereby replacing our broken habits of relating to one another in a domineering/submissive way. She defines this idea of political friendship with great help from Aristotle. As she lays it out, it involves a reciprocal relationship between citizens where each party takes turns surrendering their rights for the betterment of the larger group while being able to trust that eventually, others will sacrifice while they gain. This is how most friendships work -- responsibilities are shared, and individuals are accountable to and vulnerable to one another. Importantly, Allen doesn't suggest that these "political friendships" have to FEEL like friendships -- they don't have to involve mutual affection for one another. But, for the perpetuation of our democracy, they ought to LOOK like friendships. Near the end of the book, she outlines some practical ways of putting this theory into practice. I would recommend this book to everyone!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Irami

    Allen takes the Little Rock, Arkansas debacle of 1957 as a point of departure to show that no matter what laws are passed by congress or decided by the Supreme Court, unless you change the customary habits of citizenship of the people involved, one can only ever win a hollow victory for civil rights. The problem is that changing the customary habits of the citizenry is harder than passing a law. Changing the habits of citizenship requires that everyone become an enlightened citizen, willing to t Allen takes the Little Rock, Arkansas debacle of 1957 as a point of departure to show that no matter what laws are passed by congress or decided by the Supreme Court, unless you change the customary habits of citizenship of the people involved, one can only ever win a hollow victory for civil rights. The problem is that changing the customary habits of the citizenry is harder than passing a law. Changing the habits of citizenship requires that everyone become an enlightened citizen, willing to treat all others as equals while leaving themselves vulnerable to the other's ideas and culture, even when one doesn't have to. This sort of selfless citizenship can be construed as down right UnAmerican.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Findley

    I read this at my friend Mike's urging, and I'm glad I did, but more because it helped round out the ideas he and I have been discussing for the past few months and less for the writing itself. Building a trust-based democracy of full citizens instead of the fearful country we currently have is important work, and I liked Allen's ideas on how we got here and how we get there.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    When I discovered this book at Ruth's house, I read the first ten pages and am now hooked. I shall read. Oh, and one would do well to take Ruth's book recommendations, except about Crime and Punishment!!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Fagan

    Another for the American Citizenship and Politics group. I found this the most readable of the texts so far, although some in the group found her premise to be too simplistic, I found it to actually be uplifting and motivational.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Brad East

    Lovely prose, impressive command of a wide range of topics and texts, and a compelling recommendation for political friendship as a normative ideal in democratic society. Difficult to evaluate, and at times bordering on the utopian, but an excellent read regardless.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kaia

    I read this for my publics theories class. It was the most interesting read: a blend of rhetoric, politics, and critical race theory.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Carole Stone

    I liked her book "Our Declaration" much better.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Meg

    I did start this at one point, but was derailed somewhere around chapter 5 or 6. Armed with a new copy, I think it's time to pick it back up.

  18. 5 out of 5

    m. soria

    what's up civic knowledge project!!!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Joseph T

    The book was an incredible commentary on citizenship and provides a wonderful expansion of collective ritual ideas.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kabrina Shamburger

    Very interesting analysis of a post-civil rights movement America.

  21. 5 out of 5

    sevedge

  22. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

  23. 4 out of 5

    Adriel

  24. 4 out of 5

    Emily

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Knight

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Holland

  27. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  28. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  29. 5 out of 5

    Maria

  30. 5 out of 5

    Khryz

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