Skip to main content

Our lack of racial empathy is appalling

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
July 16, 2013 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Zimmerman trial shows that people see issues along racial lines
  • Obeidallah: We need more racial empathy so that we can reduce tragedies and anger
  • He says psychology studies show that more empathy can foster conflict resolution
  • Obeidallah: We can start by trying to see what it would be like to belong to a different race

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- The George Zimmerman trial has made one thing crystal clear. When racial issues arise, we tend to unquestionably cheer for our own race like it's a sporting match. There's little regard for the arguments or feelings of those from another race.

Is the racial empathy gap in America growing? It seems so. At least judging by the chatter of comments surrounding the trial.

I heard repeatedly the statement from some Zimmerman supporters -- including a radio show host on Monday morning who is far from being a racist -- that "94% of black murder victims were killed by other blacks."

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

So instead of being empathetic to the Martin family -- whose son Trayvon was killed by Zimmerman -- the words discounted the killing by essentially saying that black people kill each other so much so why should we care about this one black kid?

It doesn't end there. There were speculations that there will be riots by the black community should Zimmerman be found not guilty.

As CNN's Don Lemon rightly pointed out Friday, these warnings basically label blacks as "barbarians" who "can't contain themselves."

On the other side, some people of color despicably threatened to harm or even kill Zimmerman after he was acquitted.

Juror: Zimmerman feared for his life
Juror B37: 'It's very emotional' for me
Jeantel: Verdict was disappointing

No matter what race you belong to, you have to admit this lack of concern for other races need to be addressed.

Sure, there were people protesting the Zimmerman verdict other than blacks, but overall they were few and in between. (Keep in mind that 75% of America's population is white.)

And when I say we lack racial empathy, I'm not talking about feeling sorry for a race because of their "plight." I mean true empathy -- "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."

Racial empathy means being able to honestly contemplate what it would be like to be a member of a different race.

Psychologists have noted that this type of empathy fosters conflict resolution. Opening yourself to understanding why the other side believes what it does can help you find common ground.

Of course, this is not easy. It requires you to, at least temporarily, stop self-righteously dismissing competing arguments. You don't have to agree with the opposing views, but you should listen and try to understand them.

But when was the last time you heard leaders of community groups -- regardless of race -- say: "Let's look at from the other side?" I haven't.

A recent important study on racial empathy offers insights on the tangible consequences of our failure to identify with other races. Researchers found that participants believed that black people felt less physical pain when subjected to the same injury as white people because blacks "have faced more hardship."

In other words, the study shows that people are quicker to dismiss the suffering of blacks than of whites because black people have historically suffered more challenges like "higher rates of diseases, disability and premature death." The alarming conclusion is that this leads "to racial bias and potentially disastrous outcomes (e.g., condoning policy brutality against blacks, underestimating and undertreating black patients' pain)."

There's no simple fortune cookie piece of advice out there on how we can become more open and honest. But we can start simple.

How can we increase our racial sympathy? Let's look at issues from the vantage point of another race: Why are they angry? Why are they afraid? What would you feel like if you lived in a community where the crime you see is committed almost exclusively by one race? Conversely, how would you feel if you were repeatedly profiled by the police and society simply because of your skin color?

If we don't get past the knee jerking defensiveness when discussing race, we will likely be burying more Trayvon Martins. Let's try to stop the tragedies before they happen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT