One of the basic requirements of being truly human is to try to place ourselves in the shoes of others, especially those who are somehow different to us; who are marginalized by their religion, gender, or ethnicity; or who suffer through poverty, prejudice, or injustice.
It’s called empathy, a casualty of a modern age that tends to reward devil-may-care individualism, technology-driven isolation, and know-it-all egoism. Technology may have made us the most connected generation in human history, but more than ever now it takes supreme effort to genuinely relate to the pain and distress of another human being whose life we do not live, skin we do not walk in, experiences we do not share. We inevitably struggle to see clearly through the eyes of another the hardships, challenges, fears, hopes and anger life has brought them.
But always we can try. We can persist, we can listen, and we can act to seek change. Not only “can,” but “must.” It is the right thing to do if we value fairness, equality, and prosperity for all in making our community the best it can be. If we want a decent future for anyone, including ourselves, it starts there, with a willingness to understand how someone else’s pain and someone else’s dreams are connected with our own.
I was reminded of all of this after Pittsburgh Foundation Max King and I co-authored a blog following the acquittal of the officer who shot and killed Antwon Rose II. Many people in the community reached out to share similar thoughts and concerns, but we also heard from critics suggesting we were “disrespecting” police and the legal system, even though questioning the fairness of how laws are enforced is an affront neither to responsible policing nor to the rule of law in a democratic society. The lack of empathy in their responses stunned and saddened me.
But two African-American men, leaders I deeply respect and have the privilege to know through my work, reached out with comments that challenged me to think even more deeply about what we had written and what empathy demands of us.
One questioned our call for more resources to support better policing. In our statement, we wanted to convey that no municipality should ever be allowed to arm police officers with the tools and authority of deadly force without also having the wherewithal to hire qualified recruits, check their fitness and experience, and train them appropriately. We also had in mind that police departments should train officers in the art of restraint and the skills of community engagement, which requires resources beyond what many police departments currently have.
But a key word we mistakenly omitted was “accountability.” Not only is this fundamental to the fair and just application of the law, it is a central and generational issue for African Americans across our nation, conscious of the unjust violence against people of color, and the indisputable evidence that the ways laws are enforced and the judicial system is administered are weighted against them.
In walking in those shoes, we cannot help but identify with the deep and desperate history of injustice that has shaped so many black communities and so many American attitudes about race. If society is to invest in better policing, it should be with the strict expectation that something will actually change, especially with respect to the killing of unarmed African Americans. We should have said so.
Another friend took issue with comments in our statement that called on our community and individuals to “hold fast to our respect for the judicial process and the validity of the jury’s decision, even as we demand greater accountability for the future. How, he asked, can anyone expect African Americans to respect a process that for centuries has devalued the worth of black lives and exonerated white people for taking them?
“It is unreasonable for us to ‘respect’ a process that has never been designed, from its inception, to provide equal justice,” he wrote.
He got me thinking deeply about the meaning of true respect, and I do think I disagree with him in one way. Respect does not mean, as so many people seem to believe, clinging to the status quo and fiercely defending it as though perfect. Respect means working to improve the system to make it better for everyone, more inclusive, more representative, more genuinely just.
In that way, his view of the system—that it must earn the respect of his community by actually changing for the better—is a truer expression of respect than all those loud voices enshrining the criminal justice system in false notions of adequacy and immutability.
The entire narrative of our country’s slow and imperfect progress toward “a more perfect union” is predicated on the idea that we will, in moments of deep reflection and righteous anger, continue to change our laws and systems to make them ever more fair. That is what we are called upon again to do now.
We must be willing to scrutinize law enforcement protocols governing the use of deadly force, and examine how charges are brought, cases prosecuted, and biases perpetuated in situations like this. As the criminal justice reformer Bryan Stephenson said in a talk here in the days following the Rosfeld verdict, we must be willing to change the culture of policing in this country, to move from a posture of “war” and militarization to one of community engagement and peacekeeping. And, most of all, as a broader society, we must be willing to listen to people who are experiencing injustice—to try, when it counts, to walk in their shoes.
Empathy does not lead us away from the values this country claims to hold dear – it leads us toward the very heart of them. It does not make us more vulnerable or unsafe, but more cohesive – stronger as communities and as a nation.