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?


Joanna said...

Some people think that I am "too hard" on white people, but I have lived with white people all of my life, and I KNOW how white people think. And, as sad as it is, the second study DOES NOT surprise me at all. White people have a tendency to disregard the suffering of others UNLESS they are personal friends or family members. I see it in my own family. White people tend to look at a situation and say "Yeah, it's sad, but how does it affect ME?" rather than looking at the broader implications and putting themselves in the shoes of others. Recently I watched "Capitalism: A Love Story", and throughout the movie they showed people who were losing their jobs, their homes, everything they owned. BUT, they were ALONE. Then, they showed a Black family who had lost their home to foreclosure, and DOZENS of people came out to support the family. They helped the family "take back" their home. The protested against the bank that was taking the family's home from them. It is VERY RARE that you see white people come out to support anyone other than their immediate families, unless of course they are trying to get their names in the paper. When I was growing up, and I was protesting (in my own way) racism, poverty, any other injustice people would look at me and wonder WHY I cared so much about other people. To me, it seems NORMAL to do for others. It seems NORMAL to offer assistance when I am able. BUT, the majority of white people (now, understand I am coming from an upper middle class community, so I do not know if white people from other socioeconomic groups are similar)feel that it is a "strange" way of thinking. Of course, I am making a very broad statement. I do not know ALL white people, but I do know the people in the community I grew up in, I do know the people in my "family" and this seems to be a pretty common attitude... if it doesn't affect MY bottom line, I don't NEED to care.

chaunceydevega said...

Thanks for sharing. This is a tough one. On one had I get nervous when we start talking about race and science--even for positive ends (health outcomes). And I certainly don't believe that there are genetic dispositions among certain groups for good or evil. It has to be nurture and power. No?


Joanna said...

Absolutely. White people concentrate on their own lives to a greater extent because they do not NEED to work as a community for their voices to be heard. White people's voices are heard and respected loud and clear even when they stand alone, unlike the voices of POC.

Anonymous said...


There has been studies done on who gives the most to charity. They've found that people of the lowest income bracket give the largest % of their income to charity.

It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with income level. Since black people have the most representation in the lowest income level, then yes, black people are more charitable. But there is no study that has been conducted on which RACE gives more to charity within a certain income bracket. Such a study would be decried as "racist."

It is VERY RARE that you see white people come out to support anyone other than their immediate families, unless of course they are trying to get their names in the paper.

I could say the same about black people. No proof. No statistics. Nothing more than a blanket statement based on anecdotal evidence.