The Empathy Gap between Us and Them

How do people get past the feelings they have of “otherness” toward those who are different than they are? A lack of empathy and connection is often at the root of the chasm that separates us and other members of society.

That’s what I thought about all weekend, while waiting with the rest of the nation to learn what a jury would decide about the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman.

I kept perseverating about the parents of black male teenagers that I know, and the fear that they must be feeling. Several of the young men are bi-racial, but to society they clearly read as black. Caucasian genealogy is of no more protection for them than an Aryan parent was for a “part-Jewish” child in Nazi Germany.

I listened to a glut of deconstruction post-verdict…the whole continuum. I heard legal breakdowns, cultural breakdowns, and numerous sound bites from the Zimmerman camp that I found hard to swallow. Robert Zimmerman Jr., family spokesperson and brother, suggested to CNN that the media had driven a “racially tinged” narrative. Don West, defense lawyer, uttered so many arrogant comments, I couldn’t determine which was the most offensive.

Without literal and figurative skin in the game, too many Americans still don’t get it. There is a disconnect. What remains as tangible and visceral is only the otherness.

Ironically, this past weekend I was dog sitting for friends who live in a gated community. It’s nestled north of Manhattan, in Westchester County. It isn’t Florida, and there are no “stand your ground laws.” (Our state’s contribution to law enforcement is the liberal use of “stop and frisk.”)

When the bell rang on Saturday at around noon, I opened the door to see a tall, young black man in a sky blue T-shirt. He was holding a clipboard. On the back—facing me in block letters—was the phrase, “No Fracking!” He told me he was with a grassroots organization that had dropped him off by car. Here, in the middle of look-alike homes, he had been tasked with getting signatures for a continued moratorium on fracking in New York State.

We talked for about fifteen minutes, since the environment is one of the topics I cover. He told me that he was graduating from Baruch College in December, with a degree in Public Affairs. I signed his petition.

When I closed the door, I kept thinking, “Is he going to be okay? Is someone going to hassle him?” Door to door canvassing in suburbia is a tough sell. I know. I’ve done it. It wasn’t exactly like standing in front of D’Agostino supermarket on First Avenue, reaching out to passersby.

Later, when I walked the dog, I ran into him again. It was close to 5 p.m. He hadn’t had too much luck. Most people weren’t home. Perhaps they were at the pool. “What time is your team picking you up?” I asked him. “8 p.m.,” he told me. I didn’t imagine that people were going to be especially interested in discussing the ins and outs of fracking during dinnertime.

Was I were being paranoid about his safety? When I saw it was close to 8:30, I felt relieved knowing that his group had already retrieved him.

I contemplated how many people who saw him that Saturday questioned what he was doing in “their community.”

When the news came in later that night that Zimmerman had been acquitted, I reconsidered if my concerns had been crazy paranoia.

Until the barriers of “otherness” break down and erase the long-standing status of “Us” and “Them,” young black men will not be safe.

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