Race and empathy

Empathy — our ability to imagine ourselves as another, to feel what another person is feeling—is central to America’s conversation about race.

But our ability to empathize is limited by our experience. Most of us have endured physical pain, suffered the loss of parent, been rejected by a significant other and failed to achieve a personal goal.

We can intuit others’ feelings in these circumstances because we’ve experienced similar feelings in similar contexts ourselves. We’ve been there.

Our priorities differ. Just 26 percent of whites told CNN pollsters that coronavirus will be extremely important when they decide how to vote, while half of blacks prioritize the pandemic.

It shouldn’t be surprising. Blacks are almost 3 1/2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than are whites.

Health care is a top priority for 58 percent of blacks, but only 34 percent of whites. Again, it makes sense. African American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, according to the dean of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health.

In a country grappling with the killing of George Floyd by police, a majority of whites — 60 percent — see racism as a “big problem,” but 88 percent of blacks hold that view.

These differing levels of concern about racism reflect very different life experiences.

Think about that: Over half of African Americans in this country found themselves in a situation where the color of their skin may be the cause of their death.

Almost 4 in 10 African Americans believe they’ve been denied a job for which they were qualified because of their race/ethnicity, compared to 6 percent of whites.

All told, CNN found 66 percent of blacks having been subjected to at least one form of discrimination they measured. Only 18 percent of whites endured racial bias.

Three years ago, in a NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey, 57 percent of African Americans felt they had been discriminated against in pay or promotion at work on the basis of race, an experience lived by just 14 percent of whites.

Half of blacks reported being discriminated against in interactions with police. Only 10 percent of whites shared that experience.

Looked at another way, a mere 2 percent of white Americans have avoided calling police when in need, while nearly a third of African Americans have gone without police protection when they needed it, because they feared the consequences for themselves.

Just last week, as the country was convulsed by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police, Monmouth found 49 percent of whites thought police officers were more likely to use excessive force against a black person than a white one, while 87 percent of blacks thought African American suspects were more likely to be victims of excessive force.

These radically different experiences and perceptions are grounded in empirical reality.

Researchers at Northwestern University found white job applicants were 53 percent more likely to get an interview and 145 percent more likely to get job offers than comparable, but identifiably minority, applicants.

And scores of studies demonstrate that black Americans are more likely to be victims of police violence, more likely to be arrested and more likely to be given harsher sentences than whites.

We whites cannot truly empathize with the black experience because we live a different reality. Bridging that gap, trying to fathom lives we’ve never lived, experiences we’ve never had, requires hard work.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants. He is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

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