The Racial Empathy Gap Is Real and it is Really Getting Old!

August 29, 2015

The racial empathy gap is real and it is really getting old! On almost daily basis, I am reminded of that line from a Time to Kill- "Now imagine she's white!"  I am reminded by the news stories of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and the African American teenage girl hurled to the ground in McKinney, Texas after attending a pool party at which racial epithets were directed at African American youth.

 

These activities seem to be varied but they form part of an expanding set of activities that African Americans cannot engage in freely. By freely, I mean without risk of police intervention.  

 

Recently I have been reminded of that line in a Time to Kill, “Now imagine she’s white.” It underscores how people don’t realize that when they see a black person in pain they don’t think their pain is as a bad as when they see a white person in pain. It underscores how black bodies are dehumanized and it is an attempt to highlight the humanity of blacks to members of an all white jury. There is a lot of research that supports this idea, which is sometimes referred to as the “racial empathy gap.” This racial empathy gap can influence all kinds of things.

 

To recount the fact of A Time to Kill, a black girl ( around 9 or 10) is raped, beaten, used as target practice with full soda cans that rip down to her bones and urinated on by two white men. Those facts are emblazoned on my memory. Her brutalizers unsuccessfully try to lynch her and ultimately throw her off a bridge. They go to trial and I don’t remember if they are acquitted or if there are strong signs that are pointing in that direction. Nonetheless, ultimately her father, played by Samuel Jackson, can’t handle the injustice (or potential injustice) so takes matters into his own hands and kills the two men who raped and brutalized his daughter. The narrative in the story as I interpreted it is that the men will likely get off because white men don't go to jail for beating, raping, and/or killing black girls, particularly in the south. So, for me, that line has more to do with the brutality against the daughter, and the lawyer’s attempt to get the jurors to recognize her humanity. He also wants to underscore that part of why they are sitting in the courtroom and dealing with her father’s crime is because of his reasonable fear that these men would not be held accountable for the crimes committed against his daughter because of her race and their race. He is saying a version of -Think about all that has happened to this girl, which the jurors are imagining as the black girl that was victimized. “Now imagine she’s white”, underscores that these jurors likely have a racial empathy gap and would feel worse if they imagined a white victim, and perhaps see her father’s action were justified.    

 

Some people see the value in all lives. But the brutal truth is that this is not the case for all people. And, sometimes this sliding scale of worth operates at a very subconscious level and sometimes it is very explicit. Part of what the Black Lives Mattter movement is doing is drawing attention to this gap. It is not that other lives don’t matter. Instead, it is that the lives of blacks are valued less, if at all. At the same time blacks must prove their lives are valuable and, thus, it is tragic when they are lost while the trajedy of the loss a white life is taken for granted. 

 

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University of Maryland, College Park

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