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 excerpt from
Talking to Strangers
Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education
Danielle S. Allen


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.

Danielle S. AllenWhen 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. The discovery of such methods is the central project of democracy. Majority rule is nonsensical as a principle of fairness unless it is conducted in ways that provide minorities with reasons to remain attached to the polity. The central feature of democratic politics is therefore not its broad definition of citizenship or its ultimate dependence on majority rule, but rather its commitment to preserving the allegiance of all citizens, including electoral minorities, despite majority rule. Would we join a club if we knew that all its policies would go against our own interests? No. Would we join if we knew that every vote would find us in the minority? We might, provided that we trusted that the majority decisions, despite our dissent, would still generally advance our own interests. The central challenge for democracy is to develop methods for making majority decisions that, despite their partiality, also somehow incorporate the reasonable interests of those who have voted against those decisions, for otherwise minorities would have no reason to remain members of a democratic polity. Without such methods, popular government cannot become a stable form of political organization.

Fossilized distrust indicates failure at this key democratic task of holding majorities and minorities together. The Southern ”civil wars“ of the 1950s and 1960s were contained because rebellious citizens turned their allegiance to the national majority. But the experience of the local power holders should be a lesson to all democratic citizens. Not all cases of fossilized division will erupt in civil war, but all will generate significant economic and psychological costs. People talk about ”climates“ of trust and distrust because high levels of distrust make life uncomfortable, even difficult, and require extra measures for basic survival, just as climates of excessive heat or cold do. Citizens who try to do business or conduct politics against a backdrop of distrust inevitably expend financial and psychic resources in maintaining protections against those in whom they have no faith. Worse still, as we shall see, in democracies that are marked by settled patterns of distrust, citizens develop modes of political behavior designed to maintain boundaries; such citizenly habits corrode democratic citizenship from within.

None of this is to say that, given current levels of distrust, the end of the world is at hand. The United States is nowhere near an internal apocalypse. Rather, we are at a historical point where we have the time and the confidence of our successes to reorient our political practices in order to strengthen and prolong the democratic experiment. Our stability and confidence arise from the history of liberalism, meaning the ideas behind political protections of rights and liberties against state power. Liberalism originated in efforts to solve the problem of radical distrust in political life, but in the seventeenth century the dangerous distrust arose from religious contention. Theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke proposed institutional solutions for the problem, among them representative government; later, the framers of the U.S. Constitution devised institutions that went a long way toward solving the problem of radical distrust within a democratic citizenry. That those institutions could not solve the problem once and for all is proved not only by the U.S. Civil War of 1861 but also by the small U.S. civil wars of the 1960s. Like citizens in Israel and Palestine, in Rwanda, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the early theorists of liberalism faced dissension so extreme that they could not both invent democratic institutions of social control and identify those ongoing practices that might dissolve distrust within a citizenry. This second part of the task has been reserved for us. Liberal democratic institutions give us the opportunity now to think patiently and directly about citizenship.

This book is a modest contribution to liberal political theory. I argue not for institutions that can dissolve distrust but for forms of citizenship that, when coupled with liberal institutions, can do so. The forms of citizenship I advocate here tend to support some forms of liberalism more than others (I identify these in chapter 9 and the epilogue), but in general these forms straightforwardly complement institutional politics based on equal human dignity and the protection of the liberty of citizens. I bring up Northern Ireland, Palestine, Israel, and Rwanda to emphasize the peculiar advantage we in the United States have. Even our most long-lived distrust is less severe than that suffered by citizens of these other polities. Precisely for this reason, we should learn how to deal with our own. If we cannot resolve our own distrust, how can we offer guidance to those who face more radical versions of it? Interracial distrust in the United States serves as a case study for thinking about the modes of citizenship that are generally needed to deal with congealed distrust.

In part I, I recast the problem of interracial distrust in the United States as a symptom of a more general problem of citizenship. This democracy has repeatedly failed to develop forms of citizenship that help break down distrust and generate trust, a failing closely linked to a second failure to develop citizenly habits that can contend with the unequal distribution of benefits and burdens inevitably produced by political decisions. In part II, I explore why the U.S. democracy has been so bad at developing the forms of citizenship needed and also discuss the ideals that are proper to this trust-generating citizenship. A word of warning for the philosophically faint at heart: chapter 5 is the hardest going. Finally, in part III, I outline the substance of a citizenship of trust-building by exploring how the ordinary practice of friendship provides all citizens with knowledge that can be carried into the political realm to good effect. In the epilogue, I return to the intersection of these arguments about citizenship with efforts to reform political institutions. I ask all citizens to see themselves as founders of institutions, to whatever degree they interact regularly within institutions (churches, schools, universities, businesses, and bureaucracies) that have reach enough to affect the shape of life in their surrounding communities. If a citizen sees the institutions of which he or she is already a part as a medium in which to exemplify the citizenship of trust-building, institutional reform will already be underway.

This is not an argument that we should all just be friends—in the spirit, say, of Hollywood‘s popular interracial buddy movies. Nor is it an argument that each of us should seek some human commonality that binds us even to strangers, and base our relationships to them on that. In my youth, to quote Lewis Carroll, I tried that line and found it failed. In the present argument, friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration. Friendship is not easy, nor is democracy. Friendship begins in the recognition that friends have a shared life—not a ”common“ nor an identical life—only one with common events, climates, built-environments, fixations of the imagination, and social structures. Each friend will view all these phenomena differently, but they are not the less shared for that. The same is true of democracy. The inhabitants of a polity have a shared life in which each citizen and noncitizen has an individual perspective on a set of phenomena relevant to all. Some live behind one veil, and others behind another, but the air that we all breathe carries the same gases and pollens through those veils. More important, our shared elements (events, climates, environments, imaginative fixations, economic conditions, and social structures), when considered at the political rather than the private level, are made out of the combination of all our interactions with each other. We are all always awash in each other‘s lives, and for most of us that shared life, recorded as history, will be the only artifact we leave behind.

Political friendship begins from this recognition about what we share with the people who live around us and in the same polity. It moves from this recognition of a shared horizon of experience not to a blind trust in one‘s fellow citizens but rather to a second recognition that a core citizenly responsibility is to prove oneself trustworthy to fellow citizens so that we are better able to ensure that we all breathe healthy air. But in order to prove oneself trustworthy, one has to know why one is distrusted. The politics of friendship requires of citizens a capacity to attend to the dark side of the democratic soul. My ideal reader is simply the democratic citizen, any citizen, but my argument is neither Pollyanna‘s nor Hollywood‘s.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages xiii-xxii of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education by Danielle S. Allen, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

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

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