The diminished emotional response to the destruction of Black and brown bodies is nothing new to global affairs. This desensitization is often carried out with a spectator-like approach to such tragedy, and has grown to become part of human life.
Whether it’s the Red Cross miming aid by building just six homes with a half a billion dollars in donations following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake or Facebook’s non-existent Haitian filter for users to show their solidarity with the victims of Hurricane Matthew, global support is arbitrary.
But there’s a science behind the racial disparities around tragedy and how melanin often doesn’t move the needle around empathy.
Jason Silverstein, a lecturer and writer-in-residence at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, conducted a study, “The Neutral Bias of Empathy,” that explored the racial empathy gap. Silverstein’s study was a part of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, and overall found that people, including medical professionals, assumed Black people felt less pain.
In the study, participants were shown a collection of videos where Black and white people experienced the same stimuli across different scenarios. The stimuli varied from a needle touching their skin, getting shampoo in their eyes, and/or stubbing a toe, to the less harmless acts such as an eraser touching their skin.
The participants were asked to rate each experience on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 being not painful and 4 being extremely painful on how they thought the person featured in each video would feel, as well as how they would feel. Across the board, the researchers found that both Black and white participants, nurses and nursing students alike assumed Black people felt less pain.
Silverstein’s study is a microcosm of the world today. We see it in criminal justice where Blacks are given harsher sentences than whites for the same crime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that prison sentences for Black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes.
We see it in the medical field where Blacks and Hispanics receive inadequate pain medication. A National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey found that opioids were less likely to be prescribed to Blacks in cases such as migraines.
We saw it with coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Photos of white people with bags of food or clothes were referred to as “survivors” while similar photos of Black people were captioned as either “refugees” or “looters.”
Racism is most effective when it’s not seen or heard. So, like the devil, racism’s greatest trick is convincing people it doesn’t exist. And that’s where you will find the evolution of racism, in its seemingly dearth existence.
I’m sure the participants in Silverstein’s study didn’t go in believing that Black people felt less pain, but that was the outcome. I don’t believe all prosecutors, judges and jurors are racists, but a look at the prison system proves otherwise. I don’t think all journalists and media entities look down on Black people as thugs, but their inconsistent coverage on people of color says they do, literally in the caption.
Political correctness checked overt racism. Generally, racial segregation and slurs are looked down upon and seen as morally reprehensible. But political correctness balanced overt racism out with racism that’s more obscure with no agenda, because to have an “agenda” would imply you’re racist.
And that’s what’s dangerous about this new strand of racism.
The absence of empathy for people of color in times of tragedy or disaster makes that destruction more palpable, even to other people of color. If you don’t have empathy and are unaware of your own apathy towards another group, it’s not racist because technically it doesn’t exist in your own mind, which absolves you of accountability.
It’s not that the worst things are done with the best intentions, but the most racist things are done with no intentions. And I’d much rather be called a n*gger to my face than with spuriously innocuous, unconscious actions.
Terrence Chappell is a Chicago-based writer. He covers an array of topics ranging from social justice to more brain candy content such as pop culture and infotainment. When he isn’t writing, Terrence works as a social media manager at Burrell Communications.