A t-shirt slogan popular in the 1980s has been on my mind lately. It read, “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand.” For white America this has always been true; it could not be otherwise.
Understanding the plight of others requires an authentic sense of ‘been there, done that,’ which is empathy. White America has never had to live the black American experience—historically through slavery, Jim Crow laws, the legislated systemic racism of the New Deal, redlining, and discriminatory employment, or contemporarily amid gentrification and over-policing—and therefore can never truly understand the experience or its long-term effects. We cannot understand what we have not been.
Empathy with people of color, then, is a path that does not exist for white America. Fortunately, empathy has a sibling: sympathy.
Sympathy is not the same as pity. While the former is a non-judgmental awareness of another’s plight, the latter begins from a judgement of failure or loss. Sympathy is neither political nor spiritual; it is humanitarian and secular.
Sympathy is an understanding-in-common, arrived at indirectly. Unlike empathy’s path of direct learning, sympathy comes by intellectual effort and an emotional leap of faith. It begins with thoughtfully putting oneself in another’s shoes and considering their experience. There’s no shortage of written or spoken accounts helpful for this. It’s an easily surmountable hurdle—one has only to read or listen.
Emotionally, sympathy is a willingness to honestly weigh what’s been learned and an unwillingness to be swayed by prejudice or cruelty. That’s the point of departure between affording, say, poor white Americans sympathy for supporting a self-acknowledged sexual predator on the one hand while responding with disbelief regarding racist policing systems on the other. In the second instance, deep-seated prejudice curtails the possibility of developing sympathy.
It’s this historical unwillingness to give black America the benefit of the doubt, a refusal to make the leap of faith required to arrive at sympathy, preventing the white majority from making a faithful effort at leveling the opportunity landscape guaranteed at our nation’s founding. We will never approach a fully just culture if we do not make this last connection to sympathy.
Adam Serwer, writing in The Atlantic, put his finger on the problem. Consistently denying those outside the majority for differences of darker skin or foreign birth is an act of cruelty. And cruelty, as he writes, is exactly the point. It is a binding practice, one that brings fearful, angry, ignorant people together in common cause, even as many of them spend their Sunday mornings professing love for their fellow man. Cruelty takes the place of sympathy among those unwilling to accept people of color as eligible for their affections.
To understand the truth of life as a black American, ask a black American. We’re fortunate to have prolific authors, podcasters, and public intellectuals among people of color. White America needs to read, listen, and respond with the sort of sympathy that builds affection despite difference, and to elect leaders who will work to unite through virtue rather than vice.
It has famously been stated that America is great because America is good, and when America is no longer good, it will no longer be great. How great is a nation or a culture that systematically represses and ignores its citizens while denying that repression exists throughout its entire history?