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Does Racism Mean There's a Lack of Empathy?

Racism blocks us from sharing feelings and understanding others.

Key points

  • Powerful images, such as the video of the death of George Floyd can evoke empathy, particularly interpersonal empathy.
  • However, racism narrows our views and serves to block all forms of empathy.
  • Understanding historical context and the impact of racist policies and structures can move us to interpersonal and social empathy.

Last week I was contacted by a journalist who was wondering, as we approached the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, was a lack of empathy behind the existence and continuation of racism in the United States? Had people been moved empathically after watching the horrific death of George Floyd unfold in real time on video? Did that empathy lead to greater awareness and action to confront racism?1 It’s possible.

An interesting survey shows that support for the Black Lives Matter movement jumped after George Floyd’s death, then declined from that peak, but it is still higher than it was a year ago.2

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

So how might we interpret racism in the United States through a prism of empathy? It is an important question. It is also a complicated and difficult to answer question. We do know from sound research that racist individuals demonstrate significantly lower levels of empathy for those who are different from them.3 The neural networks in our brains that are involved in the empathic actions of sharing feelings and understanding what those feelings mean to others are less responsive to people we see as belonging to a different group from our own. This diminished empathy response is even lower for people who score higher on measures of racial prejudice.4

Our bodies are hard-wired to mirror or unconsciously mimic what we see or hear about that is happening to other people. But we have to learn how to interpret our reactions to those images and stories. We can learn early in life to imagine if those experiences were to happen to ourselves, which can lead to empathy, or we can learn that we are different and not to share the feelings of others, and as a result block empathy.

A review of numerous studies concluded that the racial bias in neural responses is a culturally acquired prejudice.5 That is, we learn to see other races in ways that block our empathy for them. While the tendency to lack empathy for different races is distressing, it also shows that we can change. If we can uncover the prejudice that blocks empathy, we can work to unlearn that prejudice. However, this change is more difficult as we age. Like other habits, the longer we allow our neural pathways to go in one direction, the more difficult it is to change those patterns. This is why teaching empathy to children is so important. It is why we should work to teach children that all people share the common group of being human beings, and to strive to be antiracist.

As important as it is to face an individual of a different race and see that person as a similar human being, we need to go further. We need to see the larger systems that support racial biases and address the institutional practices that reinforce those racial biases. Psychologists are coming to understand this part of the empathy equation: for too long racism has been seen as an individual bias rather than a structural and institutional problem.6

That brings us back to asking if the death of George Floyd and the increase in positive public opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed reflect progress in the empathic understanding of racism in the United States? I believe that the jump in support for the BLM movement following the death of George Floyd shows that the perception of racism as an individual problem may have been tapped, but the decline in support over the year likely reflects how difficult it is to get people to see the structural societal aspects of racism. This is why I differentiate between interpersonal empathy and social empathy.

Interacting with one other person who may be of a different race than you can help you to see that person’s humanity and that you and the other person are both members of the human race. You can tap into your interpersonal empathy. However, it takes the skills of learning about and understanding historical events and experiences that have impacted other groups to take the next step and engage in social empathy. Sharing the feelings and understanding of other people who are different from you takes conscious processing. We need to take the time to learn and analyze what our different experiences, circumstances, opportunities all mean. How does race impact how I see and interact with others around me, including those who I may not know and with whom I have little or often no contact? And we need to take the next step and ask how have historical and structural conditions contributed to the treatment and current circumstances of different racial groups?

The power of watching the death of George Floyd in real time may have tapped people’s interpersonal empathy. But the circumstances of his death, all the historical practices and societal conditions that gave rise to his death require social empathy. For that level of insight, we have a lot more work to do and a long way to go.

References

1. https://www.npr.org/2021/05/25/999791624/what-george-floyds-death-has-d…

2. https://civiqs.com/results/black_lives_matter?uncertainty=true&annotati…

3. Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observations of outgroups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 841–845;

Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7 (5), 596–603.

4. Avenanti, A., Sirigu, A., & Aglioti, S. M. (2010). Racial bias reduces empathic sensorimotor resonance with other-race pain. Current Biology, 20 (11), 1018–1022.

5. Chiao, J. Y., & Mathur, V. A. (2010). Intergroup empathy: How does race affect empathic neural responses? Current Biology, 20, R478–R480.

6. Trawalter, S., Bart-Plange, D-J, & Hoffman, K.M. (2020). A sociological psychology of racism: Making structures and history more visible. Current Opinion in Psychology, 32, 47-51.

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