The Empathy Crisis of White America
Even with our supposed raising of consciousness, our hearts have yet to catch up to our minds.
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl” via Artsy.
One day, in a pre-coronavirus world, my fiancé came home from work and told me about a patient he couldn’t stop thinking about. This is not unusual for a day in the life of an emergency medicine physician. ER doctors specialize in assessing and de-escalating risk, and they are uniquely trained in restoring a patient’s vitals after traumatic events. Of course, not all emergencies manifest themselves so obviously.
On this particular day, a man came into the emergency room with chest pain. Darien listened to a team of nurses and techs as they debriefed him on the patient: The gentleman kept reiterating that he felt fine and no longer had the original symptom, but his wife was extremely “agitated” and insisted he be evaluated by a doctor.
When Darien opened the door, he braced himself for a confrontation with an angry woman. Instead, he encountered a Black woman who looked just like his aunt. She was not agitated; she was afraid. “I’m here even though we are divorced. I’m telling you, something is not right,” she said.
Immediately, Darien decided to order a round of tests on the gentleman. What came back was a bona-fide emergency: The patient had a problem known as an aortic dissection—or the tearing of the largest artery in the body. This woman’s so-called “agitation” was actually the very thing that saved that man’s life, Darien told me. She was seen as “agitated” when, in reality, she was correct.
This is an all-too-common reality for Black people in the U.S. healthcare system. Many were horrified to read that Serena Williams, one of the most celebrated athletes alive today, had to fight her doctors for a CT scan shortly after giving birth. Prone to blood clots, Williams nearly died of a pulmonary embolism in 2011. When she felt similar symptoms the day after a cesarean section, she insisted on “a CT scan and a heparin drip,” but was denied repeatedly. Once the medical professionals finally acquiesced, the tests revealed that there were multiple blood clots in Williams’ lungs. According to the CDC, “sudden death is the first symptom in about one quarter of people who have a pulmonary embolism.”
After Williams shared her story, another chilling statistic from the CDC started to circulate more widely: The risk of pregnancy-related death is three to four times as high for Black women as it is for white women. One can add this to a list that shows the systemic discrimination embedded within the medical industrial complex. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, “half of white medical trainees believe such myths as Black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Black patients are 22% less likely than white patients to receive any pain medication during hospital visits. More recently, the medical industry’s systemic ills have taken on a grave new meaning in the midst of this pandemic, where Black people are more likely to die of COVID-19, and less likely to be tested for it. Of course, racism in medicine is a historical fact, as evidenced from the experiments of Tuskegee and the origins of obstetrics, where Black people were subjected to brutal and sometimes fatal testing.
Lately, I find myself thinking a lot of the man in the ER who was saved in no small part thanks to the pleas of his ex-wife. In fact, it’s this memory I returned to after the video surfaced of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and gunned down for running through a predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, recently told PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor that her son was “hunted down and killed like an animal.” Anyone who has seen the video can confirm that this is a disturbing but accurate comparison: Gregory and Travis McMichael reportedly saw a Black person running and assumed he was a criminal, then decided to grab their guns. What they didn’t see was a young man, a son, someone who was beloved, and loved others. Something about the color of Arbery’s skin prevented the McMichaels from seeing his humanity.
Of course, the McMichaels’ arrests came months later, after video of Arbery’s slaughter was leaked to WGIG, a local radio station in Brunswick, Georgia. On Friday, the source of the leak was revealed: a criminal defense lawyer named Alan Tucker who had consulted with the McMichaels. Tucker told The New York Times that he believed the video would reveal the truth: “It wasn’t two men with a Confederate flag in the back of a truck going down the road and shooting a jogger in the back,” he said. Astoundingly, the lawyer apparently believed the video would reveal that race was not a factor in the incident.
Instead, the video was a rallying cry for those of us who had yet to hear Arbery’s name. We took to social media and demanded justice, and eventually the President and presidential hopeful Joe Biden weighed in, along with scores of celebrities. In this way, Arbery’s death follows a modern tradition: Black people who only earn compassion from white America when the tragedy of injustice is on full display.
When a graphic video in 2016 showed Alton Sterling being tasered by police, thrown on a car, then on the ground, then shot to death, there was a similar uproar. “In some ways, the video is helpful,” wrote activist April Reign. “It’s the only record the public has seen of Sterling’s death—reportedly, the body cameras worn by the officers involved became dislodged as Sterling was restrained.”
But, Reign continues, the video is “also fodder for a sick sort of voyeurism.” Once it is posted to Twitter, it is picked up by the news, shared, and played compulsively, on a loop. “The media is complicit in this morbid voyeurism,” Reign says, “when it chooses to be.”
“Why is the video of white people being killed considered too graphic for replay, but videos of Black women, men, and children are replayed on a seemingly endless loop to the point of numbness?” she asks. While Black people are disproportionately more likely to be killed by the police, it is technically true that more white Americans than Black Americans were killed by police last year. Somehow, though, I can’t remember seeing a single video of such an incident.
The video of Alton Sterling’s death resulted in a mass public outcry, led by Black people and followed by white people. Nearly two years later, it also resulted in no charges against the officers who killed him. By then, the video had faded into white America’s short-lived memory, along with those of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and too many others. In nearly all of the cases that have caused outrage and weeks of news coverage playing the videos over and over, the killers have eventually walked free. This is to say nothing of the countless Black transgender women who were also killed, but whose deaths rarely prompt public outrage.
“Everything we’ve been taught is so deeply ingrained not just in how we think—but in how and who we love. This is the crisis of empathy that has plagued white America.”
Either way, the theatre of Black death is deeply embedded in American history. In fact, lynchings of Black people were once considered a public affair for white Americans—sometimes they even required ticket sales. In an archived broadcast with NPR from 2000, James Allen describes his book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a collection of more than 100 “picture postcards” retrieved from public lynchings in the South. White people, Allen says, would often buy a postcard to commemorate the event, then send it to their loved ones with a note inscribed on the back.
Allen describes one such postcard, which shows an image of a Black man named Jesse Washington hanging from an oak tree in Robinson, Texas. “Particularly disturbing is the mass of people—15,000 people—that came to relish the torture that day,” Allen says. The mayor of the town was reportedly concerned about the event—not for Washington, but for the tree. He insisted the oak not be harmed during the lynching.
It would be wise for white Americans to consider this history when we have an impulse to watch or share the videos that document the murders of Black people. More importantly, it’s crucial for us to interrogate why it often takes video evidence of such senseless brutality in order for us to believe the victims’ families, or feel sympathy for their deaths. Are our feelings only activated when we ourselves can bear witness to brutality—when we can, from the safety of our own homes and the comfort of our white skin, replay these horrific tragedies on a loop?
A study published by the medical journal The Lancet aimed to uncover the effects of police brutality on the American public’s psyche. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that the documented police killings of unarmed Black Americans “have adverse effects on mental health among Black American adults.”
However, the study also dug into the self-reporting of white Americans’ mental health after reported police killings. Surprising only white people, it determined that “mental health impacts were not observed.” A co-author of the study told The Washington Post “that these findings did not mean white people had no emotional reaction to killings.” Rather, their responses didn’t “cross the line from being upsetting to something that can create or cause disease.”
In other words, we’re capable of feeling something—but is it enough? This statistic has haunted me since I first read it in 2018, and it’s exactly what I had in mind when Darien told me the story of his patient that day. When he walked into that hospital room, he saw a Black woman and he thought of his aunt. The question is, who did his white colleagues see?
A cynical part of me believes that the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing—and the outcry that followed it—affirms and not challenges the white American consciousness. We know enough to believe that racism is still alive and well, but we believe this to be especially true of the South, or relegated to supporters of Donald Trump. The McMichaels are a textbook stereotype of white racism—they are Southern, unfortunate looking, middle-class white men. You can easily envision the Make America Great Again hats atop their heads. Many white people will stop following the Arbery story now that the McMichaels have been arrested. Some have prematurely stated, to thousands of likes and retweets, that justice has been served.
Unfortunately, it’s possible that, in due time, the McMichaels could go free. By then, Ahmaud Arbery may join a list of names that the collective white consciousness will forget. Instead, we will identify him not by his name nor by his likeness, but by recalling the circumstances of the video that showed his death.
We will do so without ever really acknowledging or interrogating the fact that racism doesn’t just look like the McMichaels. It also looks like the elected officials in Georgia, in their suits and ties, who paid attention to Ahmaud’s case only when the public demanded. And of course, it looks like the President of the United States, who insisted when asked about Ahmaud in an interview that, “there could be a lot of...things [that] went off tape.”
We know also, thanks to countless videos of brutality, that racism can look like our police departments. Thanks to unfortunate statistics, we know now more than ever that racism can look like our healthcare professionals. But what, exactly, can we do about it?
We lament the horrors of these videos when they happen, and we discuss them over brunch and dinner—accompanied by the solemn nods and occasional tears of our white friends and our white families. “How could this happen?” we ask each other, time and time again. Maybe we even go so far as to talk about our “white privilege,” feeling guilty but also (and we’d never admit this part out loud) grateful.
In this way, we are merely modern-day spectators to the deaths of Black people. What we haven’t come to grips with is that racism also looks like us, our families, our friends, and our colleagues. Even with our supposed raising of consciousness, our hearts have yet to catch up to our minds. Everything we’ve been taught is so deeply ingrained not just in how we think—but in how and who we love. This is the crisis of empathy that has plagued white America.
Overt and violent racist events like the death of Ahmaud Arbery’s make it easy for white people to point the finger at the perpetrators and thus, exonerate ourselves. Instead, each time something like this happens, we’d be better to point our fingers in our own directions. To take a look at ourselves and ask: How do I participate in racism, knowingly or unknowingly, in my life?
I say “we” throughout this essay to illustrate two things. The first is to refer to white people collectively, none of whom I believe do not need to hear these words in some way, shape, or form. The second is to make it clear that, even in writing this, I don’t absolve myself of my own ignorance. Of all the “unlearning” I’ve done over the years—trying to rid myself of messages of masculinity, misogyny, or internalized homophobia—some of the most challenging and uncomfortable lessons I’ve learned have been about race. One of the things that I’ve eventually and begrudgingly come to learn is that this work is perpetually in progress. That true empathy isn’t an emotion so easily learned by the most privileged. Sometimes, it requires devotion and discipline.
Finding it often requires wading into the uncomfortable spaces that we so often try to avoid, especially with our families. For me, this has resulted in shunning family members who vocalized support for President Trump, or who made crude remarks in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter protests. Sometimes, this manifests itself as being absent from events or gatherings where my presence would have been expected. Other times, it means making a point to have an uncomfortable, loud, and contentious argument that ruins everybody’s dinner. Always, it’s meant looking on in disappointment as many of my loved ones fail to understand why it is no longer possible to simply “keep the peace.”
We fail to realize that racism isn’t just physical violence or epithets. It’s the composition of our friend groups—of the people we choose to keep around and get close to. It’s in our hiring practices and the ways in which we foster or nurture talent at work. It’s in the way we choose “good neighborhoods” and “good school systems.” It’s in the people we find attractive or call “our type”—without ever realizing who we’re excluding (or worse, fetishizing) when we talk about our sexual predilections. It’s what we say when we think nobody is listening, and the horrible things we allow to be said in our company.
We can all agree that racism is the enemy. Maybe now, we can realize that this has never been enough. To truly make progress, we need to take this one step further: We must identify how, exactly, the enemy lives in each of us.