Empathy and discovering the ‘other’ amid the other America

I read it in the newspaper.

“The world needs American leadership to remind it that respect for freedom and human dignity provides the best path to a shared future of humankind,” recently opined India’s former ambassador to China in the New York Times.

Today’s America reminding the world of respect for freedom and human dignity? Today? Today when I live in terror of the day when my four-year old is just a little bit older and I will have no choice but to try to explain to her how in the country of my birth a man charged with protecting life and property put his knee on a helpless man’s neck until he died? While people right there begged him to stop? While they recorded his deadly act? What kind of horrible place did you come from? Abba, I imagine her asking me.

A lot of people lately have been quoting Martin Luther King’s famous line  that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” It comes from his  “The Other America” speech, which he delivered on March 14, 1968, mere weeks before his murder. 

Reading it, it becomes clear that the man who wrote it never lost faith in the essential goodness of America and the power of nonviolent direct action to transform it.  “Our goal is freedom,” he said as he brought his speech to a close.  “And I believe that we’re going to get there. . . . because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom and Our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.”

Freedom. And optimism. Somehow he found it amid the darkness of a nation torn in two by the tragedy of the Vietnam War. He found faith. He saw a path forward past the gloom: “There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.”  

All these years later it’s still true — the first step to America overcoming the great original national sin that was slavery is admitting that the problem exists, that racism exists. That it’s a cancer on America’s soul.

But I think King erred in one part of his statement. We see this same error everywhere in the current efforts to overcome racism in America. And, I believe, understanding this error may reveal why we have made so little progress since 1968. He used a label. He didn’t just say there was the disease of racism in America, he labeled America as a racist country.

No person of good heart wants to be called a racist. It’s like being called a murderer. An evil person. A hater.

In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a 1989 fim that tells the fictional story of a Brooklyn day when a black man is choked to death by a policeman, there’s an early scene where ‘Da Mayor’ goes to buy some beer. When the Asian proprietors of the local store tell the elderly, disheveled man that they don’t have any more of his chosen brand, he launches into an angry, racist rant: “This ain’t Korea or China or wherever you come from. You get some Miller High Life in this f****ing joint!”

It’s ugly, but I’m sure the last thing on Lee’s mind is that we should condemn Da Mayor. He wants us to feel empathy for him. The character’s words, I think, do not betray a racist man, but, rather, a man who is caught up in a society where racist forces and thoughts run wildly through it. In a moment of stress, society speaks one of these tropes through his mouth.

I am not a racist. But, like Da Mayor, I was raised, and live, in a sea of racist thoughts and attitudes. I have had racist thoughts. I have said racist things. But I have empathy — compassion — for the Alan who carries racism in his body. Like Da Mayor, he didn’t ask to be born into a world full of racism. He’s a man, not a racist. He’s trying to heal himself. I have forgiveness for him. He’s gotten better, he can continue to get better.

As a chaplain, I’ve learned to value the language of healing, and forgiveness especially self-forgiveness, when it comes to trying to make change. If America is going to beat the Trump and Fox News narrative that racism is ‘over’ in America — if America is going to heal — then we need stop labeling people. We should condemn acts or thoughts as racist, not people. If we can do that, maybe we can start to overcome people’s resistance to admitting the role of racism in America. Maybe we can help them to see the racism within them as the result of something systemic, and not a personal failing. 

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.