Another reading reflection from Education and Democracy class from earlier this summer: Allen: Talking to Strangers – Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education
Ms. Allen artfully, and insightfully, posits that the challenges facing democratic societies are significant, noteworthy and necessitate continued effort to reduce the inevitable inequalities that arise within democracies, concentrating on U.S. society post-Brown v. Board of Education, and the Supreme Court’s historic decision to outlaw state-sponsored segregation, to illustrate our nation’s unique challenges and serve as a case study for what she calls “congealed distrust.”
In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954, public facilities, to include schools, remained closed throughout our nation which Allen’s heroine, Elizabeth Eckford, with her new skirt, so beautifully emblematic of her wish to integrate white and black students together, experienced on September 4, 1957 at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Fortunately for so many since then, Elizabeth Eckford’s attempt to enter Central High School, and her subsequent rejection by state National Guardsman, provided the stage, memorialized for all of time, upon which the deep-seated beliefs and enforced rules common to the 1950’s were played out and observed by so many in our nation catalyzing and emboldening ever-increasing efforts to improve civil rights for all, regardless of race, origin, ethnicity, etcetera. In a single photo, the period’s perspective of what constituted equal citizenship is illustrated in what Allen describes as the interplay of dominance and acquiescence. Dominance in Hazel Bryan, the white female student, voicing the hatred clearly visible in the all white crowd surrounding Elizabeth and acquiescence by Elizabeth to the hatred and ignorance surrounding her that morning. Progress in our nation could now be measured against the ongoing presence of an all too visible hatred motivated by what Allen terms “interracial distrust.”
Allen also exposes the soft underbelly of democracy, that “communal decisions inevitably benefit some citizens at the expense of others,” effectively resulting in an unequal distribution of benefits and burdens, while recognizing that there may be few, if any, better systems of government in existence anywhere in the world. This dilemma, in my opinion, neither forestalls progress, nor excuses inaction and Allen, herself, agreed that to overcome inequities that result in democracies, “citizens [must] find methods of generating mutual benefit despite differences in position, experience and perspective.” In a twisted sense, inequity, within reason, serves to motivate all to seek improvement in their world using the tools available to them in a democracy and as ensconced in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Amendments to the Constitution: namely, their rights as a citizen to freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, etcetera with which they are able to shape, determine, approve, reverse, repeal and otherwise impact all subsequent federal, state, and local ordinances, laws, and rulings.
In “Talking to Strangers,” Allen frames the myths she perceives and the epiphanies she experiences while contemplating the myths, to support her beliefs about the causes for continued, “congealed distrust” separating white and black people in the U.S., even within the 21st century. She equates the existence of congealed distrust with political failure and as shown in the following excerpt, believes the democratic process should “dissolve” the congealed blockage.
“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.”
She also leads off in her prologue with many strong arguments and profound statements which resonate with me. A few examples follow.
- “A GREAT DEAL of interracial distrust is a product more of retrospection than of immediate personal experience and prevails along fossilized boundaries of difference.”
- democracies are based on consent and the allegiance of the citizens
- 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
- divisions in society that yield inequity create significant economic and psychological costs
I need much more time to contemplate the depth of these statements and how I experienced them, myself, and whether they serve to improve or hinder society, how much and what is the best course of action to address, if any. So, for brevity sake, I simply leave them as listed, with their power lingering for the reader to absorb.
Notwithstanding my positive view of much of Allen’s writings in “Talking to Strangers,” especially her ability to put her finger on the essence of what separated, and likely continues to separate, too much of our society, I do believe that a few of her assertions were off the mark. First, her implication that the 26th amendment to the Constitution, which lowered the voting age to eighteen, was nearly a conspiracy of the ruling elite since it “sapped the vigor of the protest movements of the time” while novel, just seems to seek to perpetuate the divisions she so eagerly seeks to dissolve. Second, she spends considerable time contrasting “oneness” or with “wholeness” using the “one nation under God” in Pledge of Allegiance as a central tenet in her debate and that it revitalized the language of “oneness,” code in her words, for homogeneity and separation of self from all prior ethnic, cultural, religious or other beliefs that might be perceived as not part of the great “white” society in the U.S.; I disagree with her appropriating the pledge to illustrate the differences between political extremes where one side argues for a “melting pot only” view of assimilation and strict, English-only policies while the other advocates the other extreme of mandatory multiculturalism, group rights, and bilingual education. Much further discussion is necessary to bridge the differences in these extremes in order to arrive at a consensus on how to address language, culture, religion and other geopolitical perspectives that come to our country over time and enhance its stature as the beacon of freedom. Sadly, statements like these last two by Allen simply underscore what she describes the “awareness of the interrelatedness of different citizens elicits only curiosity and confusion and not concentrated ethical and political thought.” I would go so far to say that her statements serve as bellows to the flame of indifference towards inequalities and undermines her ultimate goal, as she so eloquently states in the chapters I read, to have citizens engage in a dialog that arrives at true equality for all.