Friday, May 28, 2010
The Persistence of the Colorline: Of Pain, Suffering, and Empathy in Post-Racial America
What we have here is a tale of two empathy studies. The first story has gotten much more attention in the mainstream media. The second story has been more of an inside baseball piece circulated among specialists in their respective fields. I wonder why?
Study number one finds that both black and white test subjects have a strong level of empathy when shown images of individuals from their respective racial groups whom are in pain. In fact, these test subjects have such a strong level of empathy for "one of their own"--what is also a measure of inter-group distance--that both blacks and whites empathize more with a member of an imagined 3rd racial group, than across the colorline with each other.
Question: Is this frightening or comforting? What does this suggest about post-racial America in the best and worst of cases?
Study number two came to a set of slightly different, yet quite distinct and quite important findings. In this experiment, white and black test subjects were shown pictures of fellow members of their respective racial groups in the midst of a natural disaster or in a neutral setting, i.e. a picnic. African Americans showed much more empathy for black people suffering in a hurricane (presumably because of the still lingering, proverbial hangover from Hurricane Katrina) than did white respondents. Moreover, white respondents showed less empathy for suffering members of their own group than did African Americans for other black folk in distress.
Why would the first experiment receive much more coverage than the second? I would hypothesize that this divergence is a rich example of media framing wherein the first study (featured on CNN's front page) confirms the popular, colorblind, post-racial meme that all groups are equally capable of "racism" or "prejudice." Thus, efforts to claim responsibility (and to ameliorate injustice) are examples of "playing the race card." What ultimately leads to either the "all of our hands are dirty so please stop complaining" meme that is popular in some Conservative circles, or the equally specious and intellectually empty claim that "all oppressions are created equal" among some on the Left and in academia.
The second study also highlights a dimension of race and racial identity in the U.S. that some may find quite troubling. Could it be that black people (and I would hypothesize that an experiment with any "out-group" would show similar results) have a particular historical experience with white supremacy that has engendered a more radically humanistic approach to politics, justice, and society than for white folk at large in this society?
My claim is not one of blood and character per se, but rather of an understanding of how suffering under power informs our sense of linked fate, identity, and kinship. The history of black folks in this country speaks well to this point: the fictive kin relationships born in slavery and that continue to the present; our leadership in a range of freedom struggles; and the richness of our cultural and political vision--the Blues sensibility so often spoken of--which gives Black and Brown folk such a prescient insight into both the contradictions and hopeful possibilities of American democracy.
You tell me. How do you explain these findings? What do they tell us about the best and worst of our souls? Why will the first story be put on proverbial blast in the next few weeks, while the second has received comparatively little coverage? Is our ability to empathize (or not) with members of a different racial group a type of hard-wiring that cannot be undone, or is this just more evidence of nurture versus nature?