Empathy’s most ardent promoters have most keenly felt its absence.


Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

Kenneth Bancroft Clark, 1914-2005 Source: Chicago Urban League Records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library

Senator Amy Klobuchar’s pitch for empathy in her closing remarks in the New Hampshire debate may have helped catapult her into third place in that state’s primary. She said that she can supply the empathy absent in the White House: “If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you, and I will fight for you.”

Klobuchar’s promise of empathy is not surprising coming from the first female senator from Minnesota. In recent years, U.S. Senator Cory Booker and President Barack Obama repeatedly invoked the importance of empathy. Advocating for empathy is indeed not limited to any one demographic, but there is a rich history of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders doing so. Some of empathy’s fiercest promoters are those who have keenly felt its absence.

In 1964, James Baldwin bemoaned the fact that most whites failed to achieve the most basic form of empathy for blacks: to grasp their humanity. Basic empathy entailed the recognition that “in talking to a black man, he is talking to another man like himself.”[1] Martin Luther King Jr., grieved the lack of empathy of white moderates while sitting in a Birmingham jail: “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”[2]

Social psychologist and civil rights activist Kenneth B. Clark championed empathy over the span of decades. Clark was the first African-American psychologist to graduate from Columbia University in 1940, and two years later he began teaching at The City College of New York.[3] He helped write the social science statement documenting the psychological damage of segregation appended to the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools. He and his wife, psychologist Mamie Clark, conducted a series of studies that found that black children in segregated schools preferred playing with white rather than black dolls. The Clarks founded the Northside Treatment Center and Harlem Youth Opportunities to provide psychological and educational services for Harlem youth, in addition to the Metropolitan Applied Research Center to study school desegregation and civil rights.[4]

Clark first called for empathy in a 1965 New York Times opinion piece, “Delusions of the White Liberal.” He explained that liberals were often harder to deal with than bigots, due to their guilt, conflicting loyalties, and acquiescence in the flagrant system of racial injustice.[5] What they lacked, Clark declared, was empathy. Empathy was neither sentimentality nor pity, both of which emanated from a superior position. Empathy instead constituted the basis for mutual understanding that crossed racial lines, rooted in the underlying similarity of the human condition.

But how could this type of empathy be achieved? As a psychologist, Clark was attuned to the mechanisms of defense, repression, and inner resistance that made it difficult for a white person to move beyond their racial bias. Whites, he declared, had to dispense with “the fantasy of aristocracy or superiority,” and the white liberal in particular with “the fantasy of purity,” or the idea of being free of prejudice. In short, the white liberal had to “reconcile his affirmation of racial justice with his visceral racism.”[6]   article continues after advertisement

Whites therefore had to work to “transcend the barriers of their own minds” and to listen with their hearts. Only then would it be possible, Clark imagined, to “respond insofar as he is able with a pure kind of empathy that is raceless, that accepts and understands the frailties and anxieties and weaknesses that all men share, the common predicament of mankind.”[7]

Clark’s calls for empathy became more insistent as American politics shifted toward conservatism. In 1979 he scribbled in a lecture draft, “The only thing that will save us is a universal increase in empathy.” [8] He thought that those with political power lacked empathy, evidenced by their support of the brutal inequalities in American society. Clark even suggested that world leaders might be given a psychoactive pill to enhance their empathic qualities and inspire them to just political action. He believed that competitive, anxiety-prone American culture rewarded the rampant pursuit of one’s own interest. It was therefore imperative for educators to strengthen “man’s empathic capacity.”[9]

Clark placed his hope in the unique human capacity to respond to suffering with intelligence, social sensitivity, and the recognition that despite cultural and racial differences, something was shared. He called this psycho-political foundation for equal rights ”empathic reason.” Empathic reason is the anti-racist (and, I would add, anti-sexist) capacity to feel and to recognize the principle of the equality of all.

Today we are witnessing the unbearable cost of empathy’s absence in national politics. Klobuchar’s statement on empathy promises that her knowledge and recognition of the daily struggles of Americans will shape her policies. To restore empathy to our political discourse is our first challenge, but then we must translate empathy’s moral vision into a workable political agenda.

One thought on “Race,Empathy, and Politics”
  1. How do young Negroes especially, comprehend empathy with absolutely no Historical Context, applicable Knowledge, Leadership or Educations?

    LBRC- Breaking Brown and Yvette Cornell posed an interesting Premise. Just ‘sayin…

    1. “What makes Common Negroes believe, ‘Dat Negroes who benefit from “America’s Racist Paradigm”, will destroy or break it down to the benefit of “The People”? 

    2. Take for Example Bloomberg, Urban League, SCLC and Congressional Reps.! Local?  

    a. There is a perpetual “Taker Class”! It appears most Negroes aren’t “Giver Class”! In Politics, Common Negroes are fundamentally Hustlers! In most states like La., less than 1% of Negroes contribute to campaigns. Those who do are not significant contributors, relatively speaking! Therefore, when Common Negroes enter the room, they generally follow the lead of “Significant Contributors” aka Caucasians, others!  

    b. Where did the so- called Negro “Giver Class” get theirs? Most are beneficiaries of the system, Status Quo! 

    3. What happened after Dr. King was murdered? Whitney Young’s Urban League? Lots of “Sponges” followed! They parlayed Coattails into individual 501c’s! SCLC and The Urban League are 2020 Multi- Million Dollar Entities! Marc Morial’s salary, Urban League, alone is estimated at over $400K annually! What did Dr. King, Malcolm, Whitney earn during the struggle? What makes Common Negroes believe 2020 SCLC or The Urban League are willingly and eagerly sacrificing on par what Dr. King or Medgar Evers did? In communities with Gates, Private Patrols and Pass Codes? “Destroy The Paradigm” which supports them and “The” Status Quo? What happened with The Comcast deal? What is a “Minority” Advisory Council? Composition? Comcast serves on the Urban League Board? The Average Median Net Worth of Americanized Negroes is under $2K, in Boston $8 (Keep in mind, we’re talking the worth of household furniture, autos, savings and meager assets ‘Dat factor into this figure. Said colloquially- “The Average Negro ‘ain’t worth …, aka ‘Stuntin”!  

    4. Let’s talk Negro Congressional Reps., who’s yours? What happens when Biden or Bloomberg enters the room with a bag of “Recreational Income” (Bag Men)! Bloomberg throws around millions like common Negroes throw around nickels at The Dollar Store! Negro Criminals murder for tennis shoes! Billionaires murder justice and what else? Negro Congressional Reps. are “PAC Dependent Sycophants”! These PAC(s) have absolutely no interest in ‘Po Common Negro “Takers”! Negro Reps. are glorified Takers! 

    5. Why didn’t  most NFL Negroes back Kaepernick, who protested “Police Murders and Negro Abuse”? Did you really believe Negroes who depend on the system to give them their stereotypical “Brand”, to upset the “Cart”! Trump called them SOB’s! Hello? Trump fixed his lips, flaied his arms wildly, and said it! NFL “Owners” are worth billions! A billion is 1000 million! Bloomberg is at about 160X ‘Dat! Is ‘Dis ‘Thang on? Turkeys and bicycles are great, don’t get it twisted! Wouldn’t it be great if Negro Adults were responsible or able enough to provide for their “own” aka “Learn to fish”? What does Scripture say about a man who does not provide for their own, worst than an “infidel”?

    a. 1 Timothy 5:8- But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

    b. A “Paradigm Shift” is needed? NFL, NBA Roster spots are negligible! Lots end up under bridges after careers, cracked craniums and all, no pu intended! Will Police murder and abuse matter then? 

    6. Negro Politicos, especially locally, are Status Quo agents! In NOLA, what happened when citizens said no to ENTERGY, but ENTERGY said go? Negroes Politicos jumped high enough to enter The ENTERGY Superdome Suite thru windows! How hard is it to discern Negro Zip Codes along Interstate Highways, Vice Versa, Caucasian? City taxes are generally regressive, not progressive! Politicos will give themselves 100% Salary increases and not even visit Negro Zip Codes without bodyguards! Lots including employees, maintain homes outside districts they represent or work in!  

    7. During The BP Gulf Oil Spill, Cedric Richmond visited Grand Isle with Mitch Landrieu and Steve Scalise. During this episode, a Caucasian Grand Isle Businessman spat in the face of a Black Woman worker for doing her job. We emailed Cedric and asked him to address this issue! “We even called Cedric’s Washington Office”! Did Cedric respond? Is the meaning of is, not- Mr. Clinton? What happens or will, when Bloomberg calls? Stop expecting Negroes like Gayle King, Negro Politicos, Athletles, Entertainers et al, who benefit from the system for the system, to upset those who run it!!! 1st Truth, then…,

    ***News Flash- You’re looking for ‘luv in all the wrong places Imhotep!!!

    Peace Out… 

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