Empathy Is the Answer To Fighting COVID and Racism

Selfishness brought us to where we are. Here’s how to start to reverse it.

The “Wall of Moms” on July 27, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The shared experience of the global Covid-19 pandemic has led some to call the virus a “great equalizer.” But this is only true to the extent that we recognize its role in both revealing and exacerbating the problem of inequality plus the much less visible (or perhaps more visible) issue of American dehumanization.

Global protests followed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain, yet nothing happened to change the issue of White-on-Black police attacks. (The most recent is Jacob Blake, whose brutal shooting sparked massive unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, although Blake survived the assault, suffering paralysis rather than death.) Yet no lessons seem to have been learned about how to stop the killings, protests, and violence.

But I want to offer a humble possible solution as a first step: empathy.

Such empathy is exemplified in Portland, Oregon’s Wall of Moms, the unified group of White mothers linking arms, forming a barrier protecting Black Lives Matter protesters from unmarked federal troops. As we fight both the virus and anti-Black racism, what we are collectively learning — and seeing — is that active empathy is imperative if we are to embrace our shared humanity.

Only those with empathy can understand enough to condemn the discovery of nooses hanging where they shouldn’t be hanging. (Employees found one in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway competition, and several others in public places, including a group of five hanging from trees in Oakland, California.)

Only those with empathy would remain skeptical about the police and medical establishment’s ruling that the six Black people found dead, also hanging from trees, in states including Maine, New York, Georgia, California, and Oregon, were suicides.

American history would suggest this kind of empathy is, and has been, sorely lacking. Meanwhile, effectively fighting both the virus and the systemic racism behind police brutality means that we must find such empathy in order to reopen our economy and keep each other, every one of us, safe. That same systemic racism also exists in the health disparities that hamper our ability to conquer Covid-19. Without a deeper empathy, one that embraces each and every one of us, we will never be able to get control over our grim pandemic numbers. After all, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated: “We are 4% of the world’s population; we are 25% of the cases and the deaths.”

Where we have failed to connect and touch each other as human beings, Covid-19 has succeeded. It infects and kills with no regard for gender, nationality, ethnicity, religious belief, or political affiliation. It preys upon the inequities in American life defined by age, class, access, and — far too often — race. We see this clearly in the appalling statistics making the health disparities of systemic racism and other devaluations of human life visible by revealing that some of the highest rates of infection and death from the virus are in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, prisons, and meat-packing plants. Reports also show that people of color are more heavily impacted by Covid-19 for a variety of reasons.

The pandemic is a disastrous event. Along with the protests against the routine killings of Black people in America, it has violently exposed the ghastly reality of the nation’s historical inequality. This is why there is now a collective rage that appears ubiquitous and relentless; a fury not asking for, but demanding redress.

What is needed is a recognition of the shared humanity — the empathy — that happens when people touch each other by staying apart, realizing their vulnerability to a deadly infection, acknowledging that all human life is precious.

Addressing this shared humanity through empathy means actively working to tackle pre-pandemic health disparities affecting people of color, such as access to good health care and better educational opportunities.

It means valuing the lives and ensuring the safety of those who live and work in meat-packing plants, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes. And it means justice for the lives of Black people wrongly lost.

The lessons of history can help us understand how we got here.

In his Second Treatise of Government, the English philosopher John Locke described the rise of private property in the late 17th century and the laws that protected it. His argument states that the seeming unchangeability of European social hierarchies, established by the “divine right of kings” under an absolutist monarchy, can crumble. Meanwhile, in Atlantic America, wealth—rather than heredity—in some ways allowed for the development of power similar to that of government by the people. In the Americas, wealth in the form of private property became a way not only to judge the value of others, but to distinguish between them, creating what the 17th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a sense of amour propre, or comparison between one’s self and others grounded in private ownership.

In this new context, heredity began to take a back seat to wealth, and wealth alone, or the lack of it, determined the social capital of individuals. On this basis, Rousseau’s idea of social inequality asserts its central premise, that such inequality results from uneven relationships between individuals and their property.

In the American republic, placing sovereign power in the hands of the people was a move intended to protect citizens and their property from abuses of power. But who were these people in need of protection? They were those determined — by the laws of that time — to be fully human.

Teaching ourselves and others to stop being selfish is where we must begin

And for every human validated through law in Atlantic America (America as one vector in the world of the Triangular Trade), others were excluded, legally deprived of the right to be considered human by the humans who deemed themselves in charge. This became an important foundation for chattel slavery, which, from its beginnings in the 17th century to the end of the Civil War, relied upon the power created by European Americans (and their descendants) to use democracy (or government by the people) to divest Africans of their humanity by reimagining and recreating them as private property. By defining kidnapped Africans as property, these laws socially transformed Black people into things. As “things,” Black people became synonymous with property.

In the wake of this painful past, Covid-19 has provided the bedrock for a radical reckoning of the woeful lack of empathy — in the United States — regarding racial inequality. An example of this is police brutality, whose history lies in the remnants of chattel slavery.

The inequities in these parallel pandemics — Covid-19 and the policing of Black communities — find their origins in the gaping absence of empathy that describes them both. Such problems can only be fully addressed by caring for the human in all of us — through valuing what is human itself.

This is neither a difficult nor an insurmountable problem. Overcoming it begins with the willingness, and even more importantly, the desire, to see others for who they are, not for who we may want or believe them to be. We must ourselves be human so that we can practice humanity, and humanity must become such a practice. No other way is viable, and no other way will help us to build the 21st-century future we want.

In the words of the late Representative John Lewis,

You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say that in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being… if you have someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person. Years ago that person was an innocent child, an innocent little baby. What happened? Did something go wrong? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.

Teaching ourselves and others to stop being selfish is where we must begin. Only by working to develop the profound feeling of empathy that allows us to see ourselves in others’ suffering can we hope to finally right the racial wrongs of our troubled American history.

Only through such powerful and committed empathy can we learn at last, collectively, to touch each other’s lives and rediscover our deepest human selves. And only in developing this kind of empathy can we hope to approach the truly democratic society we seek. In the last words of the late John Lewis, democracy is an act, and we must tirelessly work at it.

Cyraina Johnson-Roullier is an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, author and essayist.

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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