What is the extent of our capacity for imaginative empathy? When is it easy to put oneself in the place of other, and when is the stretch too far to manage?
I don’t have much trouble imagining how Henry Louis Gates felt earlier this week when he was arrested at the door of his own home.
I was brought up to fear and avoid the police. On the scale of historic time, my childhood followed immediately on my forebears being hounded by Cossacks before being abused by immigration officers, on their standing helpless on this side of the Atlantic while their families on the other side were decimated—in other words, on their being educated by life into awareness of exactly how blind justice could be. Professor Gates was surely schooled in the lessons every African American is offered in childhood: if you’re not extra quiet and obedient to the police, you risk your own freedom and well-being. In this world, you can be arrested just for driving through a rich, white neighborhood; talking back to an officer is asking for punishment. Be extra well-behaved, and if you can’t do that, be extra careful. Come to think of it, be extra careful anyway.
Yet I can imagine that after decades in the rarefied and privileged air of Harvard and PBS, in Professor Gates’ place, I might have begun to relax my guard. In that deep repository where we carry the stories that steer our lives’ courses, I can imagine him starting to imagine that the deference and honor attaching to his position and accomplishments had clothed him in the same immunities his white colleagues seemed to carry, the same benefit of the doubt. I can imagine what a rude awakening it could have been when the handcuffs came out. I can imagine intense humiliation and wounded pride ping-ponging through his mind following the dismissal of charges, as he touched the memory again and again, as irresistible as touching the wound from a missing tooth.
President Obama could imagine how Professor Gates felt, and not long after that, he found he could imagine the blowback his empathy might excite. Every online column about this by-now global, swirling controversy trails a kite-tail of similarly hot-and-cold reader comments. Half of them say, “Of course this happened in racist America.” The other half say, “This story has two sides; a white man would have been arrested too.” There’s racial overlap on both sides, to be sure, to the extent that all of these assertions carry some truth. Consider my friend Rob “Biko” Baker’s low-key assertion that Gates’ outrage is in direct proportion to his privilege, or the elegant analysis of Mark Anthony Neal.
While so many of us were busy imagining what Henry Louis Gates and the arresting officer felt, another flock of headlines told us that support for healthcare reform has been eroding since the administration announced that a new tax was being considered, whereby those with incomes above $350,000 would bear more of the public cost of the system. Letting this tax change one’s view of healthcare reform entails quite a lot of imagination, because only about one percent of U.S. households have sufficient income to be subject to the tax. The other 99 percent must imagine themselves as members of this cushy income bracket and from there, imaginatively work their way around to feeling the unfairness of having to share any of their fortune with people who can’t afford healthcare.
Why is it so easy for some people to imagine themselves not only wealthy, but entitled to hang onto every penny, and so difficult to imagine themselves African American and treated by police in an abusive manner, shaped by racial prejudice?
My friend says it’s simple: in the theater of imagination, it’s so much more pleasant to cast oneself as a person of privilege than as a target of abuse.
Perhaps the Gates affair is boomeranging so persistently around the Zeitgeist because it entails both forms of imaginative empathy at the same time, and that just won’t compute. Remember those talking computers on the original Star Trek that reckoned themselves into self-destruction by trying to reconcile contradictory propositions? The message that keeps surfacing here has as many layers as an onion:
Professor Gates neglected to adopt the postures of submission required of a man of his complexion facing figures of armed and badged authority in this society…
…so he was arrested.
Because of his great stature and prestige, his arrest was trumpeted from every signal tower in the nation…
…generating both outrage (that an innocent and admirable man should be arrested at the door to his own home!)…
…and unease (that the world summons such outrage for high-status figures and spares so little for the countless ordinary Joes and Janes whose brushes with authority are far less likely to end in dismissal of charges).
In an interview with Gayle King on Oprah’s channel on Sirius Radio (listen to it for a complete and fascinating first-person account), Professor Gates thanked his neighbor for calling the police about a possible break-in, citing the value of his art and book collection. He just wanted the police to show up caring about his well-being as the owner of that property, not profiling him as a perp. Then he said this:
Often we’re chosen for events for larger reasons, and I think I was chosen to be arrested in my own home so that I would start to devote my considerable resources toward a problem that plagues American society and plagues the criminal justice system—and that is both racial profiling and arbitrary, capricious actions by rogue cops.
For readers of the Hebrew bible, this may have a certain resonance, namely a passage in the Book of Esther that has meant a great deal to me. Esther, a Jew and an orphan, which is to say a vulnerable person in the Kingdom of Persia, conceals her heritage and is chosen to replace Vashti, the queen who was dismissed by King Achashverosh on account of insubordination. Esther lives in luxury in the palace, insulated from the the troubles plaguing ordinary mortals. Then her guardian, Mordechai, whose connections enabled her fairytale life in the first place, comes to her for help: he has offended Haman, the king’s prime minister, by refusing to bow to him. In retaliation, Haman plots to do away with Mordechai’s people, the Jews. Mordechai begs Esther to intercede with the king. She hesitates, fearful of angering the king with an unwanted entreaty, thus jeopardizing her own position.
Here Mordechai says something remarkable and relevant to anyone who has come to expect immunity by virtue of social position: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”
Esther chose to be used for the the greater good, instead of staying safe in the palace. Allowing herself to be persuaded by Mordechai’s entreaty to risk her own position to help others, she revealed her identity, involved the community in a collective fast, and generally turned into a canny strategist and organizer. Henry Louis Gates was chosen, which is to say, thrust by circumstance into Esther’s dilemma. In the same radio interview, he explains that “When I said [to the officer], ‘This is how you treat a black man in America,’ it was not in an accusatory tone—it was more astonishment.” His astonishment indicates the extent to which he’d previously believed his position had insulated him from the common fate, as had Esther.
And now he has the opportunity to enlarge both his own and others’ understanding. He might use it to reflect on the nature of status and privilege, on whatever impedes our ability to imagine ourselves in the position of the other, no matter how high or low. He might use it to consider whether, as Mordechai told Esther, his status is perhaps not so much the just desserts of his accomplishments as preparation for his task (although he is a remarkable intellect and teacher who has worked hard to attain his position, there are always others equally remarkable and hard-working on whom luck has not smiled).
In his Gayle King interview, Professor Gates says he got 500 emails in an hour or two following news of the arrest. Perhaps this has also been an opportunity to experience others’ empathy and support, their ability to imagine themselves in his place. I wish him well, and look forward to seeing exactly how he chooses to return the favor.