Time to talk to strangers


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Picture this: Little Rock, 1954, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered separate but equal schools (and achievement gaps) unconstitutional. We peruse a famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford, a demure Black girl who was part of the "Little Rock Nine," being cursed by fellow "citizen" Hazel Bryan, a hostile White girl. "It's a picture of submission and domination," according to Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education author, Dr. Danielle Allen.

Armed with PhD's from both Cambridge and Harvard, she adds this photogenic event 50 years ago with these two strangers was "yet another lost opportunity to complete the transition to political friendship that the moment offered." There are many other moments as we locals know. Who can forget:

? Strangers grappling with the fact minority investment bankers are practically shut out of construction projects in our seemingly integrated villages

? Ditto for fair shares for minority insurance companies, general contractors or consultants in this place where one out of three citizens is Black or Brown

? Ditto for qualified minority teachers being hired at our schools at numbers that reflect the growing student of color population

? Ditto for Black or Latino candidates finding reasons?#34;some real, some imagined?#34;why not to run for political office in a place where White privilege rules. "White-dominated committees decide which minority is qualified or not," said one activist whose outspoken views in a documentary made him "an outlaw."

? Ditto for the fact that Spanish Immersion school programs are increasingly coming under attack by parochial minds seeking English-only instruction

? Ditto for the fact that conservatives here often feel liberals are intolerant

? Ditto for the fact Black school administrators are held up to ridicule by White strangers who use a different yardstick to measure White school administrators, different "because they hold deep-seated, oft-unconscious views that Blacks are inferior to Whites" says a local psychologist.

? Ditto for gays, lesbians and transgender citizens who feel oppressed because a large church in town is campaigning against their lifestyle choice

? Ditto for bitter minorities, so historically jaded from decades of distrust, that they can't even hear the sincerity of well-meaning Whites who do care.

We could go on and on locally, nationally, internationally, but I think you get the point that perhaps by finding new, innovative ways to talk to each other, in ways we just don't find common ground but a wider road to understanding, may be our only way to trustful friendships and a real citizenship. That's one of the thesis points for author Allen, a celebrated professor in of Classical Languages and Literatures at University of Chicago.

We discuss why so many of us (despite how we like to pat ourselves on the back so hard we could get whiplash on our so-called progressive views on diversity) have yet to complete the transition to political friendship that many of our historical moments have offered. The 33-year-old professor combines her own experience in the Chicago area, even challenging her boss, University of Chicago, with discussions with journalists on why we have anxieties talking to strangers. Also, there are dialogues with ancient philosophers and contemporary theorists who inform this dilemma.

Dr. Danielle Allen, the new dean of humanities at University of Chicago and the first African-American woman and youngest person to hold such an honor, is calling for a new humanity, a new language, a new way of establishing trust with people who do not know, and a new way of talking to each other. She instructs us that "Don't talk to strangers" is the advice crossing all races and classes that parents give to children. The problem with that, she argues, is that today it has blossomed into a fundamental precept of civic education, reflecting interracial distrust, personal and political alienation, and a profound suspicion of others. And that's just the good stuff. Seriously, all of the above are bad things that build fences instead of bridges.

And in our seemingly tolerant community where even some well-meaning people often buy into mythologies that they refuse to own up to and feel especially uncomfortable when strangers confront them on this, we all may want to take a look in the mirror and ask is Allen is truly speaking directly as us? "It is crucial to remember that even generous citizens will be distrusted if they refuse to share power," she writes on page 182. She concludes this way: "Am I right about the potential of political friendship to rejuvenate democratic practice?

Aristotle closes his treatise on rhetoric with words that he presents as the best way to close an argument, and which I will accordingly use: " 'You've heard me, you understand. Now judge.'"

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