Race, Empathy, and the White Psyche
Why whites have to examine their own minds.
Posted Jun 14, 2020
Americans are at a transformative moment in our politics and in our psyches. Grappling with the horrors of the murders of George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and countless others, many white Americans are now bearing witness to the realities of the lives – and deaths – of black Americans, and the suffering endured in an America that has, overtly and violently, subtly and systematically, perpetuated a tiered system of white supremacy. The Black Lives Matter Movement has the attention of many Americans, and many white people have joined the protests.
It is heartening to see many white Americans show up, but the extent of white commitment remains a question. For white people of privilege – and here I include myself – it is an uncomfortable time for assessing our role, our blindness, our willingness for so long to look the other way. Why have supposedly fair-minded white liberals over history been so slow to acknowledge and act on the evils of racism? Are we so marked by the legacy of white supremacy that we have a hard time rooting it out in ourselves?
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the “liberal orthodoxy” on race held that once the white populace truly confronted the realities of black oppression and saw that it violated the American ideal of justice for all, they would embrace racial equality. The white social psychologist Gordon Allport held this view. Allport taught courses at Harvard on anti-Semitism and prejudice, participated in community meetings to mitigate police brutality against African Americans, and wrote the 1954 classic, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport was asked by the black psychologist Kenneth B. Clark to share his findings on the impact of contact between whites and blacks, as Clark was drafting the social sciences statement that was appended to the Brown Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. Allport sent the data along with words of reassurance: “People really know that segregation is un-American, even the masses in the South know it…The decision will be accepted with only a flurry of anger, and soon subside. People do accept legislation that fortifies their inner conscience.”
Allport was very wrong.
When whites were faced with embracing a more just society, which included busing their children to new schools to promote integration, they resisted mightily.
Clark, however, was not surprised.
Clark saw white supremacy as deeply rooted in white psychology. In 1946, he excoriated a drama critic who panned a play portraying prejudice against blacks because it “failed as human drama.” Clark penned an angry letter to the magazine: “Anyone who has not personally experienced the searing humiliation of being rejected and despised because of color would not be likely to perceive the intense human drama involved in this play.” The critic’s inability to empathize, as Clark would later call it, could be attributed to his “deep, unconscious repressions and blockages.”
Today, we rightly dismiss psychological talk when it identifies only certain individuals as racist without confronting systemic, institutional racism. And yet, Kenneth Clark’s trenchant view on the intersection of psychology and politics has something to teach us. Clark thought that most Americans hollowly professed an egalitarian creed, yet acted on the basis of powerful insecurities that led them to deny equality to others in order to feel superior. In 1965, Clark told readers of Ebony magazine that if blacks were indeed to obtain equal rights, it would be a “psychological calamity for the average American white,” as they would have to “find other scapegoats, or to face again, the intolerable state of their own emptiness.”
White self-esteem has for a long time been built on a hollow conception of superiority, which crumbles when one can no longer rank oneself as better. Control, domination, and being in charge have for our long history as Americans been connected to whiteness, and this belief has been embedded in our institutions and in the white psyche. A series of studies have shown that threats to the status of whites was a major impetus for the emergence of the Tea Party in the early days of the Obama presidency. And in other studies, liberals show discrepancies between their expressed egalitarian opinions and their prejudiced automatic responses. With practice and awareness, however, one can learn to reduce this implicit racist bias.
As whites we need to undertake a psychological reckoning. We must look closely at our own implicit hierarchical notions, and actively cultivate anti-racist beliefs. This work includes empathic listening to the voices of black Americans, educating ourselves about the history of white supremacy in this country, and finding ways to promote change in our communities. Even as our fragility has been well-documented, we whites must tackle the guilt, shame, and awkwardness of privilege.
For decades, Clark pleaded for empathy from whites. He urged whites to confront psychological blockages to “transcend the barriers of their own minds,” and to listen with their hearts to the suffering of black people in America. He believed that America had to undergo a “therapeutic crisis of truth, which is essential for that next step of genuine activeness.” Can we make this moment a therapeutic crisis of truth that opens our eyes, and makes a radical empathy possible that could heal, and spark engaged action?
These actions should include developing models of public safety rather than militaristic policing, establishing restorative models of justice, and beginning a national reckoning on slavery and reparations. These initiatives will have greater force and energy if we whites truly believe in their justness. Heather McGhee, co-chair of the Color of Change, said that even as the Brown decision changed policy, the conscience of whites was not stirred, resulting in a swift backlash to efforts of integration. “A consciousness change,” she argued, has the power to ripple through society to spur the enactment of new laws and policies. Changing our minds can change our worlds.
 G.W. Allport to K.B. Clark, August 4, 1953, 2; Clark thanked Allport for this material on “contact.” Kenneth B. Clark to Allport, August 10, 1953, HUG 4118.10 Box 23, Gordon W. Allport Papers, Harvard University.
 Clark to Louis Kronenberger PM Newspaper May 15, 1946, Box 14, Folder 2, Kenneth B. Clark Papers, Library of Congress.
 K. B. Clark, “What Motivates American Whites” Ebony 20, no. 10 (August 1965): 69-74, 73.
 B.A. Nosek, M.R. Banaji, & J.T. Jost.“The politics of intergroup attitudes” in Social and psychological bases of ideology and system justification, Oxford University Press, 2009, 480-506. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195320916.003.020
 Robin DiAngelo, White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
 K.C. Clark to Joe King, April 13, 1965. Box 25, Folder 4, KBC Papers, Library of Congress.
 Heather McGhee to Chris Hays, “All In,” MSNBC, June 10, 2020