Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Empathy, Race and Trials - the downside of unconscious empathy

I've been thinking this week about unconscious empathy. Unconscious empathy is when I feel an immediate connection with a person - maybe because I see or hear something about them that reminds me of myself.  This kind of empathy is not intentional; and because it's not intentional I believe that it's just too easy for me to make mistakes when doing it.


In 2014, there were a lot of news stories about how people like me, white Americans, are racist. The articles talk about how we treat people unconsciously with bias and disrespect. We walk on the other side of the street from people of a different race. We glare at strangers with hoodies walking through our neighborhoods.

I connect this with empathy because in these examples, we are not empathizing with the people we see at all. I see this because in the same way that I automatically empathize with those who are like me, I do not automatically empathize with those people who are unlike me. It's not done on purpose; I'm not thinking about my behavior. I'm just doing it.

If I don't empathize with the person who is unlike me, I am more likely to treat them with disrespect. This comes to mind when I think about the extreme examples; the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent decision not to bring the case to trial, and the killing of Eric Garner and the dismissal of charges against the police officer. I don't know what happened in those cases any more than you do; but I do know that if I have empathy for someone, I don't want to hurt them. How can I? They are like me.

This lack of empathy by me (one person) can grow from something small to something big when I think about how it affects the system at large, for example, when I consider a trial by jury.

I found this great article on Juror Empathy and Race by Professor Douglas O. Linder*. He makes a lot of interesting points about how juries are generally more empathetic towards the defendant (or the victim) if they share the same race. A jury is told to treat everyone equally, and to only listen to the facts of a case. Yet in case after case, it appears that we still act unconsciously to have more empathy to those who are like us, and to have less empathy for those who are unlike us. Men with less empathy to women. Whites with less empathy to people of color. Cisgender with less empathy for transgender. Etc.

A long time ago I told a story about how I had empathy for a mom at the airport, and how I felt drawn to help her. I look back on that story and think, "what a great example of unconscious empathy". I'm just not sure anymore if it's a good story or a bad one; if it's good, it's good because I helped that woman. If it's a bad story, it's because it tells me that if I was put on a jury, I too could make a bad choice. If a mom committed a crime, would I be less likely to convict her? What about someone who was accused of hurting a child, would I be more likely to convict them?


One of the other interesting points in the article is that educated people are less likely to be chosen for a jury. I don't agree with excluding this group. If I'm on trial, I would want a jury of people who spend more time thinking, and less time reacting. I would want someone judging me who was aware of the unconscious biases in our culture, and was prepared to go against them.


* by Douglas O. Linder link pulled 1/6/2015


SL said...

I don't like and I don't watch TV shows that feature Black people bragging about indiscriminate and destructive sexual relations. In my entire life I have only met one Black person who spoke like that, and he only did it once.

Janet said...

I don't understand, can you clarify?

SL said...

I don't have empathy for the people in those shows.

Earthshine said...

There's a lot of thought-provoking stuff in this piece, but my mind actually hitched on that last bit due to a personal experience. I sat on a mock jury once, and it was an almost terrifying experience. I was amazed at how many people were reactive, and how many seemed entirely disinterested (i'm not wanting to assume that they were incapable) in applying any kind of critical thought to the process. It was just plain scary to think that -- aside from all of the other failings of judicial branch -- even a trial that presents clear, unbiased fact is so likely to go wrong.

Janet said...

Thanks Earthshine. That's really interesting. I would like a jury judging me to be introspective and not reactive, but it sounds like from your experience that would be unlikely.

All I can do is trust that we are all amazing at heart and will make the best choices we can.