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

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

by Danielle S. Allen

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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


"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.

“Allen understands that democracy originates in the subjective dimension of everyday life, and she focuses on what she calls our ‘habit of citizenship’—the ways we often unconsciously regard and interact with fellow citizens. . . . [Her] focus on race is entirely appropriate.”—Nick Bromell, Boston Review

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Talking to Strangers

Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education
By Danielle S. Allen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-01466-5


A great deal of interracial distrust now is a product more of retrospection than of immediate personal experience and prevails along fossilized boundaries of difference. We still have economic policies and social patterns to frustrate yellow, green, blue, black, pink, brown, and red. Yet continually this frustration-with unemployment, crime, and public education-is understood in racial terms. "White" blames "black" and "black" blames "white" and who knows what others blame one another and then slip also into the black-white muck. It takes time to build up a record of experiences and narrative to justify distrust, and our repeated fallback upon race as an explanation exposes history's gravity. Within democracies, such congealed distrust indicates political failure. At its best, democracy is full of contention and fluid disagreement but free of settled patterns of mutual disdain. Democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers and, properly conducted, should dissolve any divisions that block it.

When citizenly relations are shot through with distrust, efforts to solve collective problems inevitably founder. Here is a trivial example: my sweet, shy thirteen-year-old friend, Malik Burnett, who was growing up in Chicago's housing projects until his family was shifted recently to a run-down West Side house (so the high-rise projects can be demolished), loves his teachers and is proud to be third in his class in a school he doesn't know is terrible. How often have my husband and I said to him, "You know all those famous universities all over Chicago? They want you to come and they have great financial aid packages to make sure you'll have the money to go. You just keep concentrating on your reading and your math." One of his responses is simply to register disbelief: "The white people who won't come live in my neighborhood, or even visit it, will welcome me in theirs? Why should they feel any differently about my coming to live with them than they do about coming to live with me?" Even all the policies for recruiting minorities to universities and for funding poor students, even the best-intentioned and least controversial of policies, suffer from the distorting effects of distrust.

One more example. In the 1950s and 1960s the University of Chicago (my employer) cooperated with the City of Chicago and the U.S. government in a project of urban renewal of the South Side neighborhoods around the university. Just as the city had once reversed the flow of the Chicago River to run away from Lake Michigan, so now the effort was to reverse the effects of an influx of poor African Americans to the neighborhood and to stanch the rush of whites to the suburbs. The goal was also to reduce crime and improve the housing stock in the area by demolishing homes that had been converted into rooming houses with despicable living conditions. As another part of urban renewal, in remarkably far-reaching applications of eminent domain, the city and university, with federal help, cleared out businesses that served a poorer clientele, in some cases leveling business districts of several blocks. Fifty years later new economic growth in that area is only just now again sprouting up. Why has it been so slow? No doubt the reasons are multiple but among them is this: what entrepreneur will undertake the risk of a new business in an area where she can't trust the region's powerful institutions to leave her property and client base alone? Empowerment zone policies, too, will succeed at disparate rates, as they encounter distrust's paralyzing effects. This is no secret to social scientists. Political scientist Robert Putnam's marvelous book, Making Democracy Work, describes precisely the ways in which strongly contrastive patterns of trust and distrust differentiate life in Northern and Southern Italy. An honest look at the political situation in the United States leads to a related recognition that among our core political problems is not racism, but interracial distrust. It flows all ways, but especially "both ways," across the black/white divide. Despite demographic change, the question "Whom can you trust?" keeps reconstituting the color line.

But is interracial distrust in fact a political problem, as opposed to, say, simply an embarrassment? The answer is clearly yes. When Putnam turned his attention to the United States, he found a decline in "social capital," by which he meant networks and habits of cooperation that provide a cultural basis for collaborative democratic decision making. Initially, he traced the decline by focusing mostly on the decrease in participation in homogeneous groups, like Elks Clubs, Boy Scout troops, and bowling leagues. His catchphrase is common now: Americans who used to bowl in leagues now too often bowl alone. But then he found that some U.S. towns that rate high in social capital, because of the number and vigor of local social organizations, also unfortunately rank low in interracial trust. In a study of forty regions, Charlotte, North Carolina (and counties surrounding it), ranked second in giving and volunteering and fourth in the level of church activity (which is to say high in social capital) but thirty-ninth (out of forty) in cultivating trust across racial divisions. Social organizations for those who are like each other turn out (no surprise) not to cultivate social capital across historic boundaries of difference. Quite the contrary, in fact. But why should we worry that Charlotte, North Carolina, still has deep divisions, if the city has managed to sustain robust habits of cooperation among a significant number of citizens?

Interracial distrust is a problem not only for its own sake-that is, raising the question of whether ethnic minorities and majorities can overcome their pasts. It also has farther reaching effects on our political culture. One study after another has reported declines in U.S. citizens' trust of their government and other institutions of authority since the 1960s. Most recently the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center announced that whereas 53 percent of U.S. citizens in 1964 thought "most people can be trusted," by 2002 only 35 percent of them thought so. Buried in all these statistics is the telling fact that African Americans are even less trusting than other citizens. African Americans have been cultural leaders and anticipators in respect to distrust's increase. Unsurprisingly, this group's distrust comes back again and again to interracial questions. Could that be true for other citizens also? After all, interracial distrust powerfully distorts the implementation of all policies aimed at issues coded as "race" problems (welfare, employment, crime, drugs, gangs) and also any that require implementation across race lines (health care, abortion, housing and real estate, city planning, public education). These distortions result in racially disparate effects for the policies, which then feed narratives of distrust and so extend its reach and power. Is it possible that the expansion of the active citizenry in the 1950s and 1960s to include African Americans brought inside the citizenry the patterns of trust and distrust that had previously defined the boundary of the citizenry? Is it possible that, once included in the official public sphere, interracial distrust has been a catalyst of more general distrust?

But perhaps I have not yet convinced you of the basic level at which distrust pure and simple, leaving aside interracial distrust for a moment, is a problem for a democracy. Perhaps you agree with John Hart Ely, who wrote in Democracy and Distrust that the continuance of democracy depends on the meticulous cultivation among citizens of distrust in government. We should all, he argues, be so many jumpy watchdogs, a whole citizenry of Ralph Naders. On one level he's right. We citizens should cast a skeptical eye on all claims made by governing officials on our behalf, and we should vet their behavior seriously at election time, holding them accountable for choices good and ill. But intellectual skepticism about policy is perfectly compatible with efforts to encourage citizens' trust of one another and, more important, their trustworthiness in the eyes of others. Trust in one's fellow citizens consists in the belief, simply, that one is safe with them. This trust can be registered cognitively, as when one believes that a particular fellow citizen is unlikely to take advantage of one's vulnerability (and any number of reasons might legitimately support such a belief); or it can be registered emotionally, as when one feels confidence, or a lack of fear, during a moment of vulnerability before other citizens. When an election rolls round, citizens will cast a doubting eye on prospective representatives, but they can vote-that is, they can think it reasonable to participate in public institutions-only if they trust that the effects of the votes of other citizens, combined with their own, will not produce their political oppression. The conviction that one's fellow citizens are vigilant against governmental abuses of power ought only to support a citizen's belief in the efficacy of the vote. As for distrust of one's fellow citizens, however, when this pervades democratic relations, it paralyzes democracy; it means that citizens no longer think it sensible, or feel secure enough, to place their fates in the hands of democratic strangers. Citizens' distrust not of government but of each other leads the way to democratic disintegration.

How corrosive is such distrust over time? Won't the fossilized distrust in Charlotte, North Carolina, simply dissolve on its own eventually? In fact, the civil rights movement has already answered these questions, provided that we can see it for what it was: an interconnected set of low-grade civil wars in the states of the former Confederacy that arose out of long-term distrust. In the standard story of the movement, grassroots organizations in the South challenged local segregation; when local segregationists resisted, the federal government eventually disarmed Jim Crow. Because of the civil rights movement, the late 1950s and early 1960s are conventionally identified as the period when U.S. politics completed a shift (begun in the FDR New Deal era) from a protection of states' rights and local governance to dramatically increased centralization. In many accounts, even in some sympathetic to desegregation, the federal government is portrayed as a bully who took one side in a fair fight that ought to have been left to resolve itself. But what would have happened if the Southern states had in fact been independent countries, and there had been no federal government? In fact, the civil wars in the Southern states, which in combination added up to the civil rights movement, were won by the transfer of African American citizens' loyalties from their state governments to federal institutions.

Members of a political unit will not remain within it if they cease to trust its ability eventually to serve their interests, unless they are compelled by force or terror to remain. Emigrants flee impossible economic circumstances at home to join, even if unofficially, a political unit that they expect will better serve their interests. Theorists of this "exit" phenomenon too often speak of it as something that individuals do. Congealed boundaries of distrust, however, convert dissatisfied individuals who might leave their polities into groups that, unless restrained by force, eventually secede or start a civil war. Of course, these can amount to the same thing, as when in the nineteenth century the South ceased to trust that continued collaboration with the North was compatible with its interests. In the early twentieth century African American citizens of Southern states gave up on their local governments and economies in great numbers and migrated to northern cities; thus arose "The Great Migration." But with the civil rights movement, African Americans who had remained in the South after others had gone North rose up instead of departing and, with acts of rebellion like sit-ins and protests, began a series of civil wars within the former Confederate states. The tense standoffs surrounding school desegregation acquired nicknames like "The Battle of Little Rock": citizens on both sides of the Southern racial divide prudently armed themselves against fellow citizens. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the activities were rebellion: "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges."

To call that period of struggle a civil war will probably seem like an exaggeration, given how the history of the civil rights movement is typically told. The outcome of events allows us to peddle a softer version of the tale than the origin of those events points to. At the very least, in the period of the civil rights movement, large groups of citizens had decided no longer to obey a fair portion of the laws of their states. And citizens on each side of the ethnopolitical divide had difficulty imagining a future together. These two phenomena-the break from law and the failure of citizens to imagine a shared future-have historically been first steps toward civil war. In this case, African Americans in Southern states had no reason to trust the Southern whites in control of the state governments; Southern African Americans in the early 1960s therefore increasingly committed their allegiance to another political body (the federal government) in the belief that it was still reasonable to trust the national majority, if not local power blocs. Victory lay in this switch of allegiance.

When theorists argue that democracies are based on consent, they mean that the entirety of a democracy's legitimate strength and stability derives from the allegiance of citizens. That allegiance endures only so long as citizens trust that their polity does generally further their interests; minorities must actually be able to trust the majorities on whose opinions democratic policies are based. When distrust among electoral minorities endures over time and congeals, such that citizens recognize themselves as constituting a disaffected group, only four outcomes are possible: (a) distrust of the electoral majority will be dissolved and converted into trust; (b) the group will leave the polity; (c) the group will rebel against the polity; or (d) the group will be retained by repressive acts of state force. (When distrust flows in the other direction, and the majority distrusts the minority, there is the possibility that the minority will be expelled or eradicated.) The first eventuality-the conversion of distrust into trust-alone suits democratic practice.

Distrust can be overcome only when citizens manage to find methods of generating mutual benefit despite differences of position, experience, and perspective.


Excerpted from Talking to Strangers by Danielle S. Allen Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Danielle S. Allen is dean of the Division of the Humanities as well as professor in the Department of Classical Languages and Literatures, Department of Political Science, and Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens.

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