Is your empathy colorblind? Studies say, no.

Demonstrators gather outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles last weekend for a vigil in memory of Trayvon Martin. Photo by Avishay Artsy
Demonstrators gather outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles last weekend for a vigil in memory of Trayvon Martin. Photo by Avishay Artsy

The awareness, sensitivity, and understanding that lets us feel others’ pain — in a word, “empathy” — is a hard thing to force.

But it may also be a hard thing to forego. Social science researchers have increasingly homed in on empathy, or the lack thereof, as one explanation for problems as complex as the racial disparities in health and justice. What’s been termed “the racial empathy gap” refers to the growing body of research (in studies like this and this) that suggests our ability to feel other’s pain actually differs based on skin color.

KCRW’s Warren Olney spoke with Jason Silverstein who has written about the findings of several research teams.

“What they found was that assumptions about what it means to be black — in terms of social status and hardship — may actually be what’s behind the bias,” Silverstein said. “And it turned out the participants assumed black people felt less pain because they assumed they’d been hardened by life, so they could take more pain.”

What does this have to do with the nationwide discussion of race and justice following the George Zimmerman acquittal? As national leaders — President Barack Obama included — make calls for understanding, they are essentially making a plea for empathy.

The trickier question is whether this empathy gap affects what goes on in jury pools and police cars, hospitals and board rooms.

So tell us, do you think your empathy is colorblind?

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