Monday, July 20, 2015

2015 Juneteenth Freedom Symposium with Dr. Danielle Allen

The Program in African American History (PAAH) welcomed political theorist Dr. Danielle Allen for our annual Juneteenth Freedom Symposium on June 18. PAAH hosts an annual symposium to recognize Juneteenth, one of the oldest known celebrations commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. This year’s theme focused on the enduring importance of democratic ideals to confront the social justice challenges of our time.

Allen, who recently joined Harvard University as the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and a professor in the Department of Government, spoke about her award-winning book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton, 2014). The book was inspired by close readings and discussions of the Declaration of Independence in courses that she taught separately to working-class adult students and University of Chicago undergraduates.

Allen reminded the audience of the novel and subversive concepts enshrined in the Declaration, including the less studied sentiment: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [i.e. safeguarding unalienable rights], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Thus, Allen argued that the Declaration empowers Americans to create a government and political system that will address civil rights issues. Prime among these in the present day is the mass incarceration of African Americans. Allen also presented troubling statistics which demonstrated that African American children begin facing disproportionate rates of suspension in pre-school. These numbers reveal how “destructive” the current form of government is by denying black children their unalienable rights and setting them on a disenfranchised path to prison. Allen posited that the radical spirit of the Declaration provides the basis for altering our discriminatory criminal justice system through revolutionary measures. Allen offered one further thought for consideration: decriminalizing non-violent drug offenses. 

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