Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Erosion of Empathy - Black Lives Matter

In a neuroscience study on racial empathy, Social Psychologist, Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found physical evidence that white people have difficulty empathizing with non-white people. According to his findings,
“white people are sensitive to others who fall within a closed circle defined by their social relations; and members of the social out-groups ( Asians, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims ) are excluded from this circle.” 
I thought back to this study when I read a statement by Harvard Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig:
“One difference between our age and the civil rights age is that when Martin Luther King engaged in an act of civil disobedience, he was exposing himself to maybe 30 days in jail...Snowden is facing much greater penalties for what he has done.”
Such thinking is an example of how whites find a way to justify and minimize whatever whites do. Somehow, in the mind of the good Professor it is reasonable to compare an act of civil disobedience to theft and espionage. When he talks about penalties, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Professor had somehow missed the part where Dr. King was assassinated. Of course he knew...it simply wasn’t important.  In America, the prioritization of the lives of white people over the lives of people of color is the natural order of things. 
The unconscious inconsideration; the way whites diminish my history gnaws at something deep within my core and I’m losing the capacity to give so much consideration, compassion and respect, to them when so little is given to me. I can’t pinpoint a time, a place or an event that made a difference, I just know I’m not as empathetic as I once was. 
My mother died on the morning of 9/11, so it was easy to remain distant from the catastrophic event in New York. Perhaps a part of me even resented the idea that it was supposed to be more important to me than the loss of my own mother and I admit to still feeling a nagging annoyance that they continue a ceremony to honor the dead year after year by reading off their names. 
It wasn’t long ago, I mentioned to my good friend and neighbor the tremendous disparity between the settlements awarded to people who lost loved ones during 9/11 and those who suffered loss during Katrina. 9/11 victims received millions, Katrina victims were limited to $30,000. Stan, the most liberal white person I know said, “well, you know that was because those places in the lower 9th Ward were pretty rundown.” I reminded him people didn’t live in the Twin Towers..their loved ones  were compensated for loss of life and income.  Conversely, during Katrina people had not only lost loved ones, they’d lost their jobs, their homes and every single thing they owned. My liberal friend was totally detached and saw no sense of unfairness until I asked, “did you know 40% of the people who died during Katrina were white?” The shift in his mood was palpable.
Normally, an event like the Sandy Hook school shootings would have shattered my heart. Not now. I still care and I mourn for the parents, but I also think about the children who are killed every single day, one by one in this country; the media barely notices, they don’t interview their parents, hold rallies or debate new laws. In fact, when Trayvon Martin’s parents sought justice for their child, the media challenged their veracity, demonized the victim and fanned the flames of racism. It’s what they do, in the media, our history books, in political forums and our educational system...so I understand the inability of so many whites to emotionally connect to the humanity of people of color. I understand, but that doesn’t make it okay. 
Whites think it infringes on their rights to be “stopped and frisked” before they board an airplane…but believe it’s perfectly fine to "stop and frisk" people of color for merely walking or driving down the street. One  doesn’t have to fly, but one does  have to walk down the street. It is 21st century Jim Crow, reminiscent of when slaves had to possess “freedom papers” to move about. Think about that.  They’ve been calling for the papers of  President Obama ever since he declared his candidacy for office. There was no demand for papers from McCain who was born in Panama, or from Cruz who was born in Canada, nor was verification necessary for Romney who was born in Mexico. 
Americans belief systems are screwed up. They believe it’s unconstitutional to register ownership of a gun, but believe it makes sense to require law-abiding citizens to register to vote. Americans have more regard for the bullet than they have for the ballot. In fact, felons lose the right to participate in democracy, but a felon can run for President to define it.
One would think a belief that if vigilante justice and lynching were wrong, “stand your ground” would disqualify as a legal remedy.  After all, they’re the same thing. But the media, indeed a  settled-on, fractured history has reinforced deeply held cultural assumptions about the impurity and barbarity of Black people.  It has worn down my sense of compassion.  So when the sacrifices of  my people are diminished, it does something to me. 
I recently read an article by Mia McKenzie , who said it perfectly:
“I feel as if something important, something essential to my humanity, is being drained away every time you ignore the suffering and death of people who look like me and my family and my friends and my community, while devoting endless hours of attention to the suffering of people who look like you. Each time, I feel little... less...well, I feel a little less. 
And I’m not happy about it. I don’t feel good about it. I don’t want to be someone who can’t empathize with people who don’t look like me.
The only way to stop this is for you to stop ignoring the lives and our deaths and our stories.... It is not enough for you to say, when confronted, that you care. You need to act like it...” 

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