Skip to main content

Our lack of racial empathy is appalling

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
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
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT