I recently had the pleasure of appearing on HuffPost Live with Marc Lamont Hill to discuss the Michael Brown tragedy and my blog post, "Ferguson and Race From White America's Perspective, If It Switched Places With Black America." During the discussion, Mr. Hill asked me a question that epitomizes the lack of outrage expressed by some Americans over the shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and the death by chokehold of Eric Garner:
"Why is it so difficult for white Americans, or the nation as a whole, to internalize black pain?"
Why isn't 77 percent of this country outraged over the fact that 27 percent of blacks live in poverty, the almost non-existent job growth in areas where blacks live (like certain regions of Milwaukee), or the reality that blacks face 20 percent longer jail sentences than whites for the same offenses? Interestingly, the Tea Party has called Obamacare tyranny, the GOP is suing the president, and a Georgia Congressman claimed Obama has waged a "war on whites," but not much is said on Fox, Breitbart, or the Blaze about the tremendous economic, social, and judicial disparities between black and white citizens in this country.
There are several reasons for the lack of empathy that Congress (85 percent white and mostly male) as well as the rest of America has shown its fellow black citizens. First, the phrase "white America" and "black America" really aren't entirely accurate, considering that we have a black president with 69 percent of his administration composed of white liberals. The author of this article is white and the vast majority of white people in the U.S. despise the KKK, racist rhetoric like "welfare queens" or the n-word, and other overtly bigoted aspects of our history.
However, one reason it's difficult for any person to truly empathize with another human being, let alone with millions of people, is that empathy requires questioning one's reality. If I put myself completely in the shoes of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, or even a black man denied the opportunity to board a taxi cab, I must accept the reality that my world and my America isn't their world and their America. I must also question certain principles that ease my mind, like racism in America is nonexistent, or that my legal system applies to everyone equally and justly. For many citizens, especially certain white conservative voters, such empathy would lead to an emphasis on questioning the status quo, and doing so might also mean facing the prospect of our nation being less than exceptional.
Another reason for such lack of empathy is that empathy inevitable leads to a myriad of unsavory emotions. With empathy comes responsibility and culpability, self-reflection, sometimes guilt, oftentimes anger, and almost always a certain amount of regret; especially if you voted for laws or supported a political system where racial disparities contradict ideals that are dear to your heart. Then there's the issue of simply surviving daily life without the burden of thinking about another American's pain; especially if like many Americans you struggle just to keep your marriage intact, or your kids in college, or simply live another day. For example, the mentality stating, "I've worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and face the daily grind of existence, so why should I care about the suffering of others when life is difficult enough as it is?"
Also, it's difficult to place yourself in the shoes of another person who knows what it feels like to be followed in a convenience store by the owner, or asked if they really want to buy a certain item, or the hundreds of years of inequality that blacks have faced in our history. It's far easier to simply believe that your side is entirely right, your way of seeing the world is just, you work harder than those less fortunate, and that others are responsible entirely for their fate. After all, with everything going on in Ferguson and with all the issues faced by blacks in this country, 50 Cent is now feuding with Floyd Mayweather on the internet, so why should I care if even wealthy black celebrities don't? Why should I care about black America if rappers call black women "bitches" and flaunt a new Lamborghini in videos instead of promoting more positive messages to black youth? Life is difficult, with everyone in the U.S. experience his or her own elevated levels of stress and unhappiness at some point, so adding more stress (in the form of empathy) or discomfort simply isn't preferable to apathy, or overtly blaming others for their fate.
When Jeb Bush said undocumented immigrants cross the border as "an act of love," he not only displayed empathy, but also alluded to the fact that these human beings aren't evil, or blood sucking sponges that bankrupt the country. To many Americans, Jeb Bush's comments showed too much consideration, and far too much empathy, because his sentiment bordered on accusing America of holding some responsibility, or some culpability for the lack of a functioning immigration system. Like the issue of black suffering, it's easier to simply say "they did it to themselves," or "they're law breakers" or Michael Brown wasn't an angel so he deserved his fate.
Yet another possible reason many people refuse to empathize with black suffering is tied directly into why Ann Coulter is a bestselling author, or why Sean Hannity cut and ran from Cliven Bundy after calling him a hero, or why Bill O'Reilly would rather blame Beyoncé than read a book on sociology. Bill O'Reilly, the right's culture warrior, speaks to a great many citizens by simplifying the complex issues of racial disparities, as described by his own words in the following Salon.com article:
"Now I submit to you that you're gonna have to get people like Jay Z, Kanye West, all these gangsta rappers, to knock it off," O'Reilly told Jarrett.
"Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me," O'Reilly said while interrupting Jarrett. "You gotta get them where they live. They idolize these guys with the hats on backwards, and the terrible rap lyrics and the drugs and all of that."
"I want Michelle Obama to come on this program, right here," O'Reilly intoned. "And I want Michelle Obama to look into that camera and say, 'You teenage girls? Stop having sex. Stop getting pregnant. It's wrong.' Do you think she would?"
So, according to the conservative pundit, African-American teen mothers caused the loss of manufacturing jobs within inner cities, the 27 percent of poverty African-Americans face, the fact that the average black household has a net worth of just over $6,000 compared to over $90,000 for white households, the issue of longer sentences for the same crimes, and a host of other issues unrelated to the sexual habits of teenagers. Of course, you'll never hear from Fox News, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly that David T. Ellwood, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has explained that "less than 10 percent of welfare recipients live in big-city ghettos, so the bulk of the welfare problem cannot be attributed to the demoralizing effects of these communities." It's easier to blame the victim than it is to accept the fact that not everyone has a fair chance at success in America.
Finally, euphemisms like "rush to judgment" and "jump to conclusions" always seem to surround the shooting death of unarmed black people, but never around whether Obamacare will end up working, or if Cliven Bundy is a hero (Sean Hannity quickly abandoned the same man he rushed to judge as a hero), and certainly not before the OJ verdict. Then of course there was the lady in Texas mugged by an Obama supporter in 2008 who who carved a "B" into her face, which was picked up as a legitimate story by conservative sites, but strangely the phrase "let's not rush to judgment" was never used until it was found to be a hoax.
When tragedy is intertwined with politics, and economic disparities fly directly in the face of American ideals, many citizens would rather cling to cherished values than accept the possibility of their America being different from black America. For this reason, as well as many other possible reasons, it might always be difficult for many white Americans to truly empathize with the plight of their fellow black Americans.