Since last summer, the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, neither of which led to indictments, have visited anguish of all sorts on the body politic. Among the most painful was the reminder—still cutting, no matter how often it comes—of the gulfs between white and black, authority and community, stranger and stranger.
Political philosopher Danielle Allen has been thinking about bridging those gulfs since her childhood in a mixed-race household in Claremont, Calif. As a professor at the University of Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., she has produced a body of work on political relations, ancient and modern, that critics have called both strange and penetrating.
Last month, Harvard University announced that Allen will take the helm of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics this coming July, bringing her perspective to one of the nation’s leading centers on ethics education.
Allen has turned to Aristotle for lessons on how we should treat strangers. She’s walked line-by-line through the Declaration of Independence with a group of low-income night students; in her latest book, “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” published by Norton last year, she argues the document can train ordinary citizens in the fundamental exercise of democracy.
Undergirding her writing is a sense that the traditional measures of political equality—voting rights, the right to serve on a jury—are not enough. We need to make personal connections, in what, as she pointed out in a recent interview, will soon be a majority-
minority country. “It’s a level of diversity,” she said, “that no society has ever grappled with before.”
To make that happen, Allen says, everyday choices are pivotal. She’s just entered her oldest child in the Cambridge public schools lottery, in part because she believes middle-class parents and children can strengthen urban schools for low-income families and strike a blow at income inequality.
Allen recently tweeted that her focus at the Center for Ethics in the new academic year will be “diversity, justice, and democracy.” She will succeed Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor of law and leadership who has focused on the corruptive influence of big money in politics.
Allen spoke to Ideas by phone during a recent visit to Cambridge. This interview has been edited and condensed.
IDEAS: You are a classicist by training. What do Plato or Aristotle have to teach us about this post-Ferguson moment?
ALLEN: One of the things I really love in Aristotle is he’s very interested in the concept of virtue....On his long list of virtues, there’s this one—it’s the virtue of acting well towards strangers. Always making sure that we’re not trying to be domineering, nor are we obsequious and acquiescent, but we find this proper point in terms of balancing our relations with strangers. There’s no name for this virtue, but it most closely resembles friendship....The question of the social fabric that we build really depends on whether or not we can take those very basic, elementary learnings about something like friendship and transfer them to a different scale.
IDEAS: What would building cross-cultural “friendships” in a place like Ferguson look like?
ALLEN: I think, at one level, one has to think about where institutions themselves are making connections. It’s not OK if you have city council, city offices, and so forth that represent one group of the population and not another group of the population. So you do have to think about plain integration....But building those structures of integration is not enough. So that’s when the bridging and the friendship part comes in.
There are people who are very good at bridging. There are even professions that highlight that. If you think about interpreters and translators or patient advocates in a medical system, those are all people who have honed bridging skills. So my point is that if we can tap into those kinds of bodies of understanding, we could actually all teach ourselves to be better at bridging across cultural divides.
IDEAS: So what does this mean? Is it a curriculum in the schools, or literally sending people with experience into the neighborhood to broker meetings?
ALLEN: I think all of the above. I think, yes, sending people with this experience to not only broker, but also to teach others, train others.
IDEAS: You’ve been thinking about questions of cross-cultural conversation since you were a teenager. Was there a moment that clarified, for you, the importance of this work?
ALLEN: There are always little moments....I remember having a conversation with a white friend about affirmative action, where one of her comments explaining her position was, “But you’re not like the rest of them.” And little moments like that make you realize how hard it is, even in the context of—she was a friend—good will and friendship. Our preconceptions about race, about differences across ethnic lines and so forth, go so deep. They really do affect our lives across all dimensions.
IDEAS: Can you describe the experience of reading through the Declaration of Independence with a group of night students in Chicago?
ALLEN: I was really surprised, when I started teaching it, that none of them had ever read it....Their initial response was, “That doesn’t belong to me. That’s old, dead white guys, and they set up a system based on slavery.” Then, it was quite a moving experience to find out how much the text did speak directly to them. And it did because every single one of those students was in our program, The Odyssey Project, because they were trying to change their lives. And the declaration is written by a group of people who are trying to change their lives.
IDEAS: You write in the book that the declaration is something like a marriage, where saying “I do” actually changes reality.
ALLEN: It’s this tricky question: Can words themselves make something happen? There’s a way in which we want to say, of course not....But there are occasions when words make the critical difference. In this instance, you had this group of colonies—they weren’t really sure about their future. They had differences amongst themselves—slaveholding, plantation Virginia was very different from small-business, commercial New England. What on earth could hold them together?...The declaration really is the moment when they answer that question, because they held themselves to this unanimity requirement for it, which is a very rare thing in politics.
IDEAS: Our politics is pretty dysfunctional. Do we need a new declaration?
ALLEN: It’s not exactly that we need a new declaration....But I think what they did in articulating...their commitments about equality and freedom and the relationship between those two things was they also established a set of procedures to make decisions.... What we need to do, in a certain sense, is go back to the question of that relationship between our ideals and our procedures and consider whether or not our procedures are actually getting us what we want.
IDEAS: What would that mean? Campaign finance reform?
ALLEN: Campaign finance, redistricting questions. Should we have a national holiday for elections so that we can get out there and get people turned out to vote?
IDEAS: How do you plan to approach these issues at the Safra Center?
ALLEN: In its earliest years, the [center’s] focus was what is called applied ethics. So take a profession—business, law, medicine—and the question is, what are the ethical issues that arise? Larry Lessig redirected the center to a broad initiative around corruption: efforts to undo corruption, move past it, achieve transparency. What we’re doing is sort of halfway in between. We are going to continue a more pointed thematic focus—not quite the same scope as Larry undertook—but balancing that with engaging people across professional skills in those ethical questions. The specific theme, “diversity, justice, and democracy,” is one that touches on just a huge number of ethical and political issues.