The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why empathy is the key to dismantling white racism

'Empathy’ is not just an emotional buzzword — it’s a political necessity.

Kenneth B. Clark, left, a New York psychologist and member of the board of trustees at Howard University, speaks at a news conference with student leaders in 1968. (Bob Schutz/AP)

The revelation that both the governor and the attorney general of Virginia wore blackface in their youth is a stark reminder of the pervasiveness of racist attitudes in white America. The subsequent debate as to whether Gov. Ralph Northam should resign has centered on his ability to lead after being blind to the negative impact of his racist actions. His behavior indicates “no empathy for African Americans,” concluded Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. That has to change if Northam is to have a political future.

Failing to cultivate empathy will not just harm Northam’s relationship to his black constituents. Without empathy — the combined emotional and rational understanding of the impact of racism in the lives of African Americans — he is likely to neglect policies that could alleviate systemic discrimination. Indeed, the lack of empathy on the part of white Americans has long impeded the fight for racial equality.

For years, African American leaders have been calling for this kind of politically engaged empathy. In 1964, at the New York City Town Hall roundtable “Liberalism and the Negro,” James Baldwin grew increasingly frustrated with his white interlocutors. Amid a debate over quota systems, two very different versions of American society emerged: one, promoted by the white panelists, celebrated increasing equality; the other, put forth by Baldwin, underscored entrenched discrimination. Baldwin voiced disappointment with the white liberal, who, he said, “thinks you’re pushing too hard when you rock the boat, who thinks you are bitter when you are vehement, who has a set of attitudes so deep they’re almost unconscious and which blind him to the fact that in talking to a black man, he is talking to another man like himself.”

Baldwin was the only black man participating in the discussion until Kenneth B. Clark, a professor of psychology at City College of New York, stood up from the audience to agree with him. For Clark, years of research had shown exactly how destructive racially charged, often unconscious, attitudes were. Beginning in 1939, he and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, documented in a series of studies that black children preferred to play with white dolls rather than black ones. In 1954, Clark compiled a mountain of social scientific data that implicated segregated schools in black students’ psychological distress, crucial evidence cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools.

Clark’s analysis of the destructive psychology of white prejudice drew on the work of psychoanalyst Alfred Adler to show that white supremacy helped to mask deeper feelings of social inferiority among white Americans. As they struggled with their own failures and inadequacies, a belief in racial superiority boosted their egos.

As a young man, Clark railed against this psychological mechanism in a scathing letter to the editors at Time magazine, after he had visited their offices and an employee had slurred him with a racial epithet. The “satisfying superstition of Nordic superiority,” Clark wrote, served as a psychological crutch for this “defender-to-the-death of the mediocre individual ego.” This flaw in the white psyche was so prevalent that 30 years later, Clark explained in an Ebony article that if black people were indeed to obtain equal rights, it would be a “psychological calamity for the average American white.” White people would then have to “find other scapegoats, or to face again, the intolerable state of their own emptiness.”

Even those white liberals who genuinely promoted racial equality were not immune to the insidious impact of this psychological syndrome. They were riddled with guilt and conflicting loyalties, while being complicit in the system of flagrant racial injustice. Liberals refused to give their unreserved political support to the civil rights movement and were unable to understand the motivations of African Americans. They simply did not see African Americans as their equals, as “another man like himself,” as Baldwin put it, even as they advocated for legal equality.

The reason? They lacked empathy. Clark held empathy to be something quite different from sentimentality or pity, which were delivered from a position of superiority. Empathy, in contrast, acknowledged the underlying similarity of the human condition and, thus, created a foundation of mutual respect that could reach across racial lines.

But empathy required work, notably rigorous self-examination. “Any genuine relationship between Negro and white must face honestly all of the ambivalences both feel for each other. Each must identify with the other without sentiment.” Whites had to abandon “the fantasy of aristocracy or superiority,” and white liberals had to dispense with “the fantasy of purity,” or the idea that they were free of prejudice.

Clark challenged white liberals to let down their defenses and to engage in honest conversation to “reconcile his affirmation of racial justice with his visceral racism” and face the fact that their own privileged status might be threatened. Conversations had to move beyond discomfort, defense and guilt, a constellation of responses that recently has been labeled “white fragility.”

Clark knew that empathy alone could not dislodge entrenched institutional racism. But he believed that if a person could achieve a heartfelt understanding of others, that individual would rationally grant to them civil and human rights. “Empathic reason,” as Clark called it, was more than a feeling: it was a political intervention.

Since Clark’s time, empathy has been studied extensively by social and cognitive psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists. But the efficacy of empathy in politics has been vigorously debated. Critics today deem empathy a narrow emotional response extended only to people similar to us. For Clark this was merely “parochial empathy,” which diminished what empathy could be.

More than 50 years ago, Clark envisioned something very different: an aspirational empathy that asked white people to “transcend the barriers of their own minds” and to listen with their hearts. Only then might one “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.”

White Americans have just begun to examine these inner barriers and common prejudices. Comedian Trevor Noah may be right when he says that Northam should stay in office as long as possible. Only then will he be forced to engage in continuing and challenging conversations about race. This is the path to the radical empathy Clark promoted. To understand someone different from us, we have to change ourselves.