Exposing the Empathy Bias This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 8, 2016

On November 22, 2014, police dispatchers received a call “of a male black sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people” in a park. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, was the “man” in question. Rice’s gun was in fact a toy that lacked its orange safety feature identifying it as a replica and not a real firearm. But this realization was made only after Rice had been fatally shot by a police officer.

The media’s attachment to the story was dramatic and solidified police brutality as a hot topic for the year. Ironically, Republican Fox News watchers did not show Rice, or any unarmed black men shot by police, any sympathy or empathy – only criticism and bad press. This left many of us wondering how some of the population could be so heartless. It is my opinion that much of the U.S. is suffering from a lack of sensitivity toward people of color. We roll our eyes at YouTube trolls and racist commenters, but who are these people behind the computer screens? And most importantly, what are their day jobs?

When people ask what the problem with police in predominantly black communities is, it’s obvious to me: many white people have a subconscious and longstanding bias against blacks.

“She’s actually smirking,” says Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, pointing at a Powerpoint slide showing a young white girl smiling smugly at the sight of one of the thousands of black men lynched during Reconstruction. “She would probably be torn up if this was a puppy,” DeGruy says.

The idea that white people have less empathy for people of color, particularly blacks, seems to be a longstanding and well-supported idea in the field of psychology.

“What was the impact on white people? There it is,” DeGruy points at the girl again. “Right there. Can’t feel any empathy for him.” She looks around at the shocked congregation. The energy has changed in the lecture hall.

“Whatever she’s been taught or told, socialized to believe, makes him no longer human. That’s the greatest danger to white people – is that they can’t feel it,” the author and psychologist concludes.

But psychology is mainly based on theories, opinions, and anecdotal evidence. Nothing is set in stone in this field, especially when we are analyzing a large group of people. So what do more reliable sciences, statistical analyses, and social experiments say about race and empathy?

Humans, regardless of color, are hardwired to feel another person’s pain, but Current Biology, a popular health journal, suggests something very unnatural is happening to white people in interracial situations. In a study conducted by the journal, people of multiple races were shown short clips of white-skinned hands and black-skinned hands being pierced by needles. Changes in the nervous systems, heart rates, and sweat glands of the participants were measured and recorded.

“White observers reacted more to the pain of white than black models,” says lead researcher and medical doctor Alessio Avenanti. The test subjects who demonstrated the most pride in their race also felt the least empathy for the pain of the black hand. “A doctor with high racial bias may understand the pain of other-race patients in a more detached or disembodied manner and, in principle, this may contribute to the causes of racial disparities in health care,” Avenanti concludes. If racial disparities in the medical field may be attributed to a lack of empathy, it is logical to draw parallels with the killing of unarmed people of color by police.

Some people may suggest that social sciences are subconsciously biased themselves and that psychology and social experiments cannot be trusted, even when conducted by professionals. Of course, statistics can be flawed, psychology is ever evolving, and social experiments are prone to all types of bias.

Statistics, certain or uncertain, aside, it is likely that you – no matter your race – have witnessed the racial empathy gap firsthand: teachers know the unfair system their students face, and doctors have witnessed the gross under-diagnosis of patients of color. And that kid in your English class who claims that black people “are always whining and complaining,” “blame everyone but themselves,” and “need to pull themselves up by their boot straps” may have parents who are doctors, lawyers – or police officers.

And that is the problem.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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