Monday, April 29, 2013

Got empathy?

It’s an informal, intimate moment. I've given a ride home to a young mother of two. ‘LC’ has spent (as in donated) her evening to help organize a grass-roots attempt to eliminate racial profiling by Portland Police. It’s been six years since police killed unarmed, mother-of-two Kendra James at a traffic stop. In a few months an unarmed father, Aaron Campbell, will be executed during a welfare check by police. Campbell’s mother will lose two sons that day; one to heart disease and another – despondent over his brother’s death – to a police sniper acting outside his chain of command.

Campbell’s will be the fourth police homicide of an unarmed black man or woman in the preceding several years of Portland’s long history of disparate treatment of people of color. Like the victims, LC too is a person of color. It is deep concern that has brought her away from her family to plan a campaign to get Portland City Council to change police policy.

My companion turned to me to say, “As a mother, it is so important to get this right.” LC began reflecting on the challenges of physically disciplining her boys.

It would be years before I was exposed to Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome— America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. I was then only superficially aware of the abject brutality that slavery invoked. Writing this today, my own family history research has revealed to me a staggering capacity for inhumane treatment of slaves. Genial stories about ‘Uncle’ Dave and ‘Aunt’ Mary have receded in importance. I've read warnings from my Christian, slave-owning antecessors. They cite the the ill effects of slaveholding to be the corruption on morals that such absolute, life-and-death domination has on character. Slave-holding kin explain that such power corrupts their neighbor's character.

“You know, they used whips on us,” says LC meekly. She is torn. She doesn't want her parenting style to be a continuation of the physical coercion that has shaped African American culture.

“But, if I don’t get this right,” she says, meaning if undisciplined children run afoul of the law, “the police will kill my boys.”

And I am stunned. I have glimpsed across the divide of my White Privilege. I am a parent, flying by the seat of my pants: at no point have I felt it necessary to contemplate that my failures in fathering bear the remotest possibility of such lethal consequences. As a parent, I care about this issue in a new way.

I informed myself. I now know that Portland over-polices LC’s neighborhood. The odds are far greater that her children will encounter law enforcement than mine. In fact, the police target LC’s children. The City of Portland’s own stop data has consistently shown racial disparities since they began collecting it in 2004: people of color are twice as likely to be stopped than whites; once stopped, they are twice as likely to be searched (an amplified effect). Yet people of color searched by Portland Police in 2010 (latest available figures) are a third less likely to have contraband.

Based on false assumptions, and society’s massive expenditures in a War on Drugs, my country now systemically hunts her children. [While white youth experience drug-related emergency room visits thee times more frequently than black youth, and whites (ages 12-17) are a third more likely to have sold drugs; and while the use of drugs has long been about par for white youth and those of darker pigmentation, black children (about 16% of that population) make up 58% of the youth cohort committed to state prison as adults.]

Even if she gets it right, and LC’s children grow up well-disciplined and productive members of society … beyond the sphere of criminal activity … they run a much higher risk of death at the hands of police than my fair-skinned children ever will.

But who cares?

Looking for images of Kendra James, as Portland memorializes the ten-year milestone of her homicide (where, as with Aaron Campbell, no one has been punished): I was directed to The Empathy Blog. In an analysis of missed empathetic opportunities during a public forum following James’ death, the author decried “re-activating histories of violence, victimhood and hatred.”

“a re-telling of the Kendra James incident that raised memories of old familiar stories of white on black violence, and evoked resonances of rape and slavery … began the collapse of the opportunity for empathy.”

I don’t know what to do with my empathy. My vicarious experience of KC’s fears led me to an intellectual identification with the debilitating effects of racism. I was spurred to take public risks and work for the passage of a Police Plan to Address Racial Profiling in 2009.

But, in this online community of well-meaning folks committed to understanding and evoking empathy, I find no appreciation for historical trauma ... a condition I'm reasonably certain resonates in the lives of people not too far removed from the author. The depiction of ‘victimhood’ is an affront to compassionate people who understand the unremitting continuum of racial injustice.

Data from the Multnomah County Health Department gives longitudinal evidence of racial disparities in health outcomes. “How can this be?” I wondered, at first disbelieving. “Doctors are among the most caring people in my community.” But it is true; for a variety of reasons, care providers demonstrate racial bias. Our brothers and sisters suffer needlessly.

I am in a dilemma. I know empathy would be a highly effective tool, to motivate those in the dominant culture to end such injustice. I am pretty sure contributors to The Empathy Blog see themselves as do most Portlanders: as just and compassionate ... progressing toward an ever more equitable future. Time and time again, however, I get the sense that well-meaning members of the dominant culture want to leap past truth and embrace reconciliation. It is difficult for them to countenance that the most fortunate among us pay to perpetuate police, courts, county health providers (not to mention schools, the housing authority, employment opportunities and training initiatives) that perpetuate racially unequal outcomes.

White people’s advantages are often invisible to them. It requires some study, and a society bent on documenting them, before disparities can be made obvious in a structured way. 

For me, a sense of moral indignation was a prerequisite to becoming sufficiently motivated to make apparent what had been invisible to me. White people who have not achieved intimacy with the victims of racism are, I fear, less likely to so engage. When those in the dominant culture dismiss as 'old' and 'familiar' fears and pain that resonate in the here and now, I suspect they are unlikely to achieve empathy that will lead to dismantling racism. This reinforcing behavior leaves most of my fellows distant and uniformed of serious, ongoing social ills. 

Seeing how pervasive it is, I struggle now with the idea that structured racism is not inadvertent. Racial disadvantages do not remain simply due to entropy. I had thought empathy would be a vital component in spurring well-meaning folks to move from denial and into remedial action ... to press against all that reinforces racism. When I find myself in a center of advocacy for empathy, however, and infer that victims or their survivors should ‘get over it,’ I find myself discouraged. Contemporary attitudes and policies both have straight line connections from America’s one-time embrace of slavery. I don’t think everyone has to untangle those lines with historical accuracy, but I join in the demands of the Coalition of Communities of Color in their well-researched Unsettling Profile:

We seek for those in the White community to end a prideful perception that Multnomah County is an enclave of progressivity. Communities of color face tremendous inequities and a significant narrowing of opportunity and advantage. This must become unacceptable for everyone.

We in the dominant culture must learn to stop waving away the hurt. We must learn to care.

2003 Memorial for Kendra James, I-5 Overpass, NE Skidmore St., Portland, OR

1 comment:

  1. The author of the original post in The Empathy Blog responded.
    "I was thinking that the possibility of community empathy with the police was reduced by the experiences of repeated bad treatment. As you say at the end of that paragraph, empathic understanding by the authorities of the humiliating experiences of PoC is an urgent need."


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