Reprinted from the Register-Guard
Opinion: Posted Jun 7, 2020 at 12:01 AM
For centuries, black people have been the proverbial canaries of the American coal mine, literally sacrificing their lives to warn others of toxic conditions that must be cleared to ensure abundant and healthy lives. COVID-19 has made more commonplace, throughout America, the death and trauma that are all too familiar in our ghettos, reservations and barrios, with its heaviest toll being among people of color and women.
Even more tragic are the latest injustices: the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers. Ahmaud Abery was murdered by a father-son duo. Also, we saw Amy Cooper's effort to use her privilege, as a white woman, to endanger the life of an innocent black man, all of which reveal that too many of our non-black sisters and brothers have yet to learn the lessons that black people literally have been dying to teach them: the importance of empathy and the need for anti-racist thoughts and actions.
Empathy is entering into and holding space for the pain and joy of others in a selfless way, even when we don't fully understand what is going on. For some, empathy initially is embraced when one's own self interests are at stake. While that is not the purest form of empathy, it is a step in the right direction.
One memorable depiction of the power of empathy is found in the 1996 movie, “A Time to Kill.” Jack Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) convinced an all-white jury in the then-segregated South to render a not-guilty conviction after Carl Hailey (played by Samuel Jackson) killed the white men who brutally raped his young daughter. In his closing argument, Jack upended the usual racist tendencies of the all-white southern juries by getting them to act on their empathy. He began by asking the jurors to close their eyes. Then, he walked them through each and every detail of the heinous crime. In closing, Jack asked the jurors to imagine each of those heinous acts had happened to their own daughters. It was only then that the all-white jury was able to hold space for Carl Hailey’s rage allowing justice to prevail.
In communities across America and the world, empathy has spawned peaceful marches — in the midst of a pandemic — that are comprised of courageous and passionate people from manifold backgrounds and identities to stand in solidarity with the family of George Floyd.
However, the tragic events that have spawned America’s latest acts of outrage, as well as hundreds of marches by courageous people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, are not just about individual bad actors. They represent the fruit of a society that still is inherently racist, even though important progress has been made.
That is why empathy must become a portal to ongoing and persistent structural transformation, especially if we aspire to be the American society that we need to be. Individual acts of kindness are nice, but they are not enough. We must recognize that America is, indeed, as racist as it is beautiful. Its racism lies at the core of our civic, political, educational, economic and religious institutions. Unless we intentionally are anti-racist, all are prone to enact and perpetuate this racism in conscious and unconscious ways. We must minute-by-minute engage in the type of anti-racist behavior that will lead to true and lasting change.
At a minimum, we all need to educate ourselves about how to be anti-racist by reading and appropriately practicing recommendations in Campaign Zero and Data for Black Lives as well as Robin DiAngelo’s “What Does It Mean To Be White” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist.” While racism has also devastated Native, Latinx and Asian communities, addressing anti-black racism is crucial to ensuring fairness for all other communities of color.
Then, we need to take individual actions with the intention of facilitating structural change: use what we have learned to make informed political decisions, lead ethically, raise our children intentionally and use our money to support people as well as organizations that are making a positive difference.
While there are no easy answers, I know this for sure: If we don’t use the COVID-19 pandemic and the precious lives that have been destroyed to dismantle racism in our hearts and in society, we run the risk of passionately marching forever, but, sadly, going nowhere!
Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is professor of political science and vice president for Equity and Inclusion at the University of Oregon.