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Empathy - Part 2

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Headlined to H1 6/1/09

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Recently I published an essay entitled "Empathy" in which I detailed the beneficial usage of Empathy for a Supreme Court Justice. Two stories were in the news recently that illustrate a bad usage of Empathy. Both stories were highlighted on one morning's episode of NBC's long running "The Today" show.

The first story was of Sara Jane Moore who attempted to assassinate President Ford on September 22, 1975 and who was recently paroled after 32 years in prison. Now at 79 years of age she could probably board a commercial flight with less probability of being stopped for a random security check than a young man who looked like a Middle-Eastern descendant, although he might actually be Puerto Rican, or a racial clone of Barack Obama, because Ms. Moore looks like a (former First Lady) Barbara Bush clone. Many people agree that profiling is a way of making us safer, but why should a law abiding American citizen with a perfect legal record probably have more trouble boarding an airplane than the person who attempted to kill an American President by shooting at him? Obviously that profiling is based on looks, but many people, (disproportionally white people and conservatives) have Empathy for the philosophy of racial and ethnic profiling.

Many use the Empathy that white people feel for each other to try to get away with criminal behavior.

The other story discussed Bonnie Sweeten who claimed two black men kidnapped her and her daughter after crashing their vehicle into the back of the Sweeten's SUV. Ms. Sweeten called police to say that she had been forced into the trunk of a black Cadillac (because all Black men drive Cadillacs?). Good police work using cell towers to triangulate on Ms. Sweeten's cell phone call eventually started to put holes in her story, but the media and American public with their ever-ready Empathy for white women and white children had been hooked already. There were no Black kidnappers. It was a hoax that lead to a Disney World vacation. Stranger than fiction?

And who can forget the Empathy we had for Susan Brown who claimed a black man kidnapped her two children while carjacking her? As soon as I saw the first report on TV, I told my wife, "She's faking it" which got me into a lot of trouble with my wife. I was called cold, callous and a few other choice names because something smelled bad to me. But, Susan Brown knew the Empathy that her crying pleas to the (alleged, though non-existent) kidnapper would evoke from the media maniacs who don't care about politics, but love reality shows. And what could be more of a reality show than watching an attractive white woman crying for her missing children?

Then there was Charles Stuart a white man who claimed that a Black man killed his white pregnant wife Carol Stuart. The police had a lot of Empathy for Charles Stuart, so much in fact that they rousted the whole Black section of the Boston suburb looking for the Black killer. The Black public was outraged, but got little sympathy from the local white people. Some white people went on TV News shows to express Empathy for the police and their policy of profiling. Police profiling gets more Empathy than innocent Black citizens. Is that because we all know what kind of people Black people really are?


Who among us can forget "Runaway Bride"Jennifer Wilbanks who said an Hispanic man and white woman kidnapped her from Georgia to New Mexico. Although the kidnapping was a hoax brought on by cold feet about her impending wedding, the American public's Empathy was in fall force.

In the 2008 Presidential election, Senator John McCain almost reaped the benefits of bad Empathy when campaign worker Ashley Todd's story of a brutal attack by a Black Obama supporter surfaced. Twenty year old Todd from Texas was a student volunteer for the McCain campaign in Pittsburgh, but just before white Empathy took hold and Senator Obama's poll numbers plummeted, the truth came out about the self inflicted wounds. White Empathy for a white woman's hoax could have changed history.

Has anyone ever noticed that only white people, usually blond white people have misfortunes? Well of course that is not true, but our media plays it up that way. On the same night that the "Central Park Jogger" was gang raped by a gang of Black teenagers out "wilding", a young Black woman was taken by force to the roof of a housing complex building. She was stripped totally naked, raped and then thrown from the roof. She would have been killed except that she hit an bunch of TV cables and telephone lines on the way down and was saved after hanging for quite a while from those lines.

Now which story is more newsworthy? A simple, though despicable rape or a rape and "it only happens in the movies" escape from death? I'd put my money on the latter, put the media knew that Empathy for white victims trumps sympathy for Black people (even with the miraculous escape from death scenario). In fact, while the "Central Park Jogger" story made not only local, but national headlines for months, I'll bet that many of you are only finding out about the other rape victim for the first time while reading this. And of course, the "Central Park Jogger" was not gang raped by a gang of Black teenagers out "wilding". She was raped by one sick individual: A repeat rapist and a murderer.

Recently the WABC News Magazine 20/20 spent their full hour on Etan Patz, a little white boy who tragically disappeared 30 years ago while walking to school from his parent's apartment on the lower West side of Manhattan. There was no real news to break; 20/20 just wanted to keep the tragedy in the Empathic public's mind. How many times has the Jon Benet Ramsey tragedy surfaced in the over 12 years since her murder? At least as many times as the Etan Patz story in the past 30 years I would expect. Have no Black children been kidnapped during that time span? Or do we only have Empathy for white victims and the victims of Black criminals, but not Black victims? Or is it that the media doesn't believe that Black victims will generate enough interest or Empathy to sell papers or raise TV ratings?

Do I have Empathy and Sympathy for the white victims and their families? Of Course I do. But should a white girl who disappeared from her British parent's vacation apartment while they were on vacation in Portugal be more important to me than an American Black child who disappeared from a town 25 miles down the road from me? I have nothing against Madeleine (Maddy) McCann, but I am angry at her parents for leaving her and her twin sibling unattended while they enjoyed dinner at a restaurant. No! I don't think that they should be punished by finding out that their daughter was either raped or murdered or that they should be put in jail for child neglect, but I hope if they ever find Maddy McCann alive that the parents will be punished by at least being ostracized. My sympathy goes to Maddy McCann and her twin sibling, not her parents, because they were selfish. I do have Empathy for the parents because I, as a parent know how it would feel if I lost my child or grandchild, but that does not make the Maddy McCann story more important than many other more local stories.

When the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972, it made that decision because the majority of men on death row were there because they were Black men had been convicted of raping white women. Not raping and murdering white women. Rape! If a Black man was convicted of raping a white woman, the victim received so much Empathy, that the perpetrator was sentenced to death, or was the Empathy for the woman really the governing value? I ask because if a white man was convicted of raping a white woman, the victim seemed to receive much less Empathy, enough less that the assailant was usually not sentenced to death. A victim who was Black and raped by a Black man didn't seem to receive as much empathy either. And of course a Black woman who alleged that she was raped by a white man got so little Empathy that juries never believed her. Or was it that the police gave her so little Empathy that they didn't put their best foot forward during the investigation?

Either way, it was the Empathy of the Supreme Court for the difference in Empathy towards Blacks and whites, both victims and assailants, that lead to the overturning of the death penalty. A few months after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the death penalty, one of my coworkers, a kindly white gentleman who was just a few years short of retirement, was decrying the Supreme Court's decision to me. I explained that the reason was that three quarters of the death row inmates in the country were Black men convicted of raping white women, while the other convict/victim race combinations were treated differently. He smiled his all knowing smile just before dropping one of those pearls of wisdom that one only obtains in the latter years of life and said, "You are probably too young to understand, but it is much more traumatic to be raped by Black man than a white man, especially if you are white". I was flabbergasted at the Empathy quota that white rape victims of Black men received from my coworker (and apparently from judges and juries) and the small quota of Empathy that other rape victims received from my coworker, judges and juries. Many decry quotas when used to level the playing field for employment or educational placement, but few complain of the way quotas seem to be used for Empathy distribution.

In the paragraph on the disappearance of Maddy McCann, I mentioned that I was angry at the parents, but I am also angry at the way Empathy, both bad and good are distributed. I may also seem to be angry at white people for their Empathy quota system. But I am more frustrated than angry. My son tells me, "It is natural to identify with people most like yourself" and I also understand that it may be natural to identify most easily with people who look like you, who live in the same locality or same country or who speak the same language as you, but that should not be to the exclusion of people who are different. Maybe all people need to not allow Empathy, the kind of Empathy that I call bad to see so much of ourselves in people who most resemble us. Especially if that excludes having Empathy for people who don't resemble us as closely.

Although I may seem to be angry, I am hopeful. Maybe because TV now shows whites plus Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Gays, lower middle-class, poor and every other type of person under the Sun, today's upcoming generation will be different. When I was growing up, the only people on TV were white and all the men wore suits and ties (except for Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden and William Bendix in "Life of Riley"). The few Black people on TV were maids or chauffeurs. Oh yes! There was "Amos and Andy", but let's not even go there. Maybe today's children will not grow up believing the lies of past generations. Maybe including the contributions of Blacks during history class will yield returns on that investment. Seeing a Black family in the White House may be the best thing that ever happened for leveling the playing field and the Empathy quotas alloted to different types of people by the public and the media, although it hasn't happened yet.

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I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1945, worked as aircraft mechanic for 35 years and moved to Florida from Brooklyn in 2003. My wife and I will celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary this year. Our only son is 41, married and has one daughter, plus his (more...)
 
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