Citizens in Conversation

Citizens in Conversation

Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, by Danielle S. Allen

Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education
by Danielle S. Allen
University of Chicago Press, 2004, 254 pp., $25.00

“Don’t talk to strangers.” These four simple words contain one of the first pieces of worldly wisdom American parents teach their children. The words may help protect children from physical danger, Danielle Allen writes in her book of the same name, but the political message they convey ill serves education for democratic citizenship. The capacity to “talk to strangers,” to hold a dialogue, to reason, and to deliberate with one’s fellow citizens in a context of civic trust, Allen tells us, lies at the heart of democracy. And she makes this argument in an extraordinary philosophical text that is itself a conversation among different intellectual traditions and different approaches to race in America—traditions and approaches that rarely engage with each other. Allen is distinctive among contemporary political philosophers in her focus on the actual practice of the democratic politics she advocates.

Talking to Strangers begins with a meditation on the meaning of a powerful piece of American political iconography, the 1957 photograph of African American student Elizabeth Eckford as she was prevented from attending Little Rock’s Central High School by a white mob screaming for her lynching. In a way that prefigured the work of the civil rights movement, the photograph revealed a “public sphere” from which African Americans were excluded and showed how that exclusion was enforced through the ever-present threat of violence. Confronted with this ugly reality, Americans were shamed into seeking a new, more inclusive political order. Allen makes a compelling case that the civil rights movement “founded” a new American constitution and brought into being a new American citizenship.

Central to this transformation, Allen contends, was the willingness of African Americans to assume the burden of democratic citizenship, which she defines as sacrifice. The theme of sacrifice is initially drawn from Ralph Ellison’s reading of African American history, and especially from his response to Hannah Arendt’s infamous misunderstanding of the civil rights movement (in an essay first published in these pages, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Winter 1959), but Allen gives it a broader political meaning. Actual democracies do not achieve a perfect common good of the sort that Rousseau described, where all citizens benefit equally from collective action. Rather, there are always inequities in the distribution of the benefits and burdens of collective action, with some people losing out so that others can gain more. Democracy is made possible by the minority of citizens wh...