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10 Questions About Empathy In America, A Year After George Floyd's Death

People embrace last month in Minneapolis after the verdict is announced in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.
People embrace last month in Minneapolis after the verdict is announced in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.

"I can't breathe." "I'm scared." For many people, hearing someone say those words would prompt a scramble to help. But not all. It depends on who's listening.

A year ago Tuesday, the world watched as George Floyd's life was taken from him in an agonizing 9 1/2-minute video — a murder a police officer was convicted of committing. This month, we saw long-suppressed footage of troopers stunning and punching Ronald Greene as he apologized for leading them on a high-speed chase. He too died.

Millions of us watched those videos. But we didn't all see the same things, and part of the reason is empathy. On a basic level, how we hear the words of Floyd — and more recently, the words of Greene — depends on our level of empathy.

Testifying about the day Floyd died in Minneapolis, many witnesses wept, still feeling despair at not being able to help him.

"When I cried, the whole world cried," witness Charles McMillian said recently, describing the powerful testimony he gave in court.

But not everyone had the same response. To get a sense of why — and to learn whether America's relationship with empathy is changing — we spoke to two people who have spent decades studying empathy and bias: Elizabeth Segal, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Social Work, and Jody David Armour, a criminal justice and law professor at the University of Southern California.

How do you define empathy?

Elizabeth Segal: Empathy is a lot more complicated than we would like to think.

I consider the word "empathy" a broad umbrella that includes "interpersonal empathy" and "social empathy."

Generally, [interpersonal empathy is] the understanding of others from their perspective. In other words, it's both sharing feelings and understanding what those feelings mean to others ... one-on-one or in a very small group.

Social empathy fits more with what's going on in terms of coming to grips with racism in America and the death of George Floyd. It's trying to understand what experiences mean to other groups who are different from you and experiences you may never have. That's social empathy — and it's much harder.

Let's get the big question out of the way: Do you see a lack of empathy as one reason racism continues to thrive in the U.S.?

Segal: It's the lack of social empathy. You have a lot of people who don't have any experience or insight into people of other races, and that fills a void that often can be filled with stereotypes and displaced anger: "I'm not getting ahead because of them." It's the other-ness of people. We have intrinsic tools for empathy, but we have to learn how to be empathic.

Jody David Armour: Absolutely, yes. But we have to carefully define terms, what we mean by racism, because a lot of my work recently and even early in my career was on unconscious bias. You know, something people now like to refer to as implicit bias.

I initially was looking at how at the descriptive level, people unconsciously make harsher judgments about Blacks. But more recently, I came across studies involving brain imaging, that essentially show you your brain — and then here's your brain on race. It's a phenomenon called "in-group empathy bias."

The study was based on the phenomenon that occurs when a person sees someone of the same race drinking water — the observer will simulate what he or she sees, in their mind. They don't pantomime it, but their brain's mirror neurons allow them to simulate what they see.

Protesters stand outside the Government Center in Minneapolis in May 2020 to support CAIR-Minnesota in calling for the arrest of police in Floyd's death.
Elizabeth Flores / Minneapolis Star Tribune via Getty Images
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Protesters stand outside the Government Center in Minneapolis in May 2020 to support CAIR-Minnesota in calling for the arrest of police in Floyd's death.

They found a tendency for that to fail when it comes to race. So that if you're someone, say, white and you're looking at somebody Black who is drinking a cup of water, your mirror neurons are less likely to fire. So, the basic building blocks of empathy and sympathy aren't there.

One thing we've seen is that more people of different backgrounds are now saying "Black Lives Matter," the rallying call against violence targeting people of color. Do you also hear it as a call for empathy?

Armour: No question, absolutely. At the heart of the Black Lives Matter mantra is an [implicit] ellipsis that people have chosen willfully to misinterpret. And that ellipsis is: Black Lives Matter, also.

The most natural reading is "Black Lives Matter, too": Why don't Black lives get the same kind of consideration, the same kind of care and concern as non-Black lives? That was the real thrust.

You can be willfully obtuse about what [BLM] means and say, "Oh, you're saying only Black lives matter? No, all lives matter." There's a whole group of Blue Lives Matter people — the same people who were criticizing Black Lives Matter. What it meant was, they got it all along.

Considering the past year, do you believe more Americans are now finding empathy within, especially for people of other ethnicities?

Segal: It seems to be the case. To be honest, I'm more optimistic with younger people. Empathy is actually a combination of different brain activities and changing brain behavior.

Family and friends react during a news conference last month following the verdict in Chauvin's trial in Minneapolis. The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on all three charges he faced in Floyd's May 2020 death.
Nathan Howard / Getty Images
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Family and friends react during a news conference last month following the verdict in Chauvin's trial in Minneapolis. The former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty on all three charges he faced in Floyd's May 2020 death.

That's what we struggle with — is to change images or ideas that are fixed in our brain from a young age. And that's why I have great faith in young people, because more and more of them seem to be actively trying. They're also living in a more diverse world, just through social media. I mean, they have more input than young people 50 years ago.

That exposure normalizes all these differences and helps to combat the stereotypes that then block empathy.

When people learn about a confrontation between someone and the police, the defining narrative has often been a police statement that's very condensed, and only from the officer's point of view. But video provides this other window and sort of brings a chance for empathy. It's also where some people seem to diverge.

Segal: That nine minutes and 29-second video [of Floyd and the police], the power of that video ... there'll be different reactions. But watching that is a form of experiencing something. And it was a horrific thing to watch, that a dry police report wouldn't give you.

That's the part that takes training, too, is what do you see in there? Who are you identifying with? If George Floyd looks like your father, your brother, your best friend, yourself — you're going to have a stronger reaction than if he looks different than you.

There's lots of research that empathy is triggered more deeply, more quickly, that empathic neuro actions in the brain are triggered deeper for people who look like us versus people who don't. That may be something deeply embedded in human beings from a survival perspective early, part of tribal living.

What about people who are in a position of power? Do you see people's capacity for empathy being affected by how much power or authority they have?

Segal: Yes, power actually blocks it. This is a generalization, but power can block empathy. And there's both good and bad reasons for that.

Starting with the good reasons: When somebody is in a leadership position, if they are picking up and processing everyone's feelings and experiences — those who work for them or who are represented by them — they would be immobilized. So that's the part where power and leadership says, "I can't attend to every need, I have to look more globally."

The bad part of it is that people in power don't tune in to people's needs and experiences. And the more powerful you become, the more closed off you are to people's lived, day-to-day experiences.

The other thing about power, which is very interesting from an empathy perspective: When you are less powerful, you have to read the people who are in power and the people who are around you, your peers. So you're bicultural, essentially.

I mean, you talk to any racial minority, sexual minority, any minority, they speak multiple languages — I mean "languages," as in culturally. We hear about it a lot, that African American parents have to have "the talk" with their sons about what happens if you get pulled over by police. That's a survival mechanism they have to learn. That's being multicultural.

I understand why there's the call for bringing in social workers or people who behave differently with members of the community than the police, who are in charge of law and order. What I think's happening underneath is that they're saying, "You have to see us as human beings."

You have to see people as a person with mental illness, or a person who's just been evicted and doesn't have any resources — as opposed to a law-and-order-only perspective: "You've been evicted, you're breaking the law; you're screaming on the street, you're disturbing the peace."

Can our laws do more to encourage or even require empathy? Should they do that?

Armour: This is one of the things that the grassroots activists brilliantly drove home to us over the course of last summer. They say it's transformation, not reform, that we need transformative change.

Reform would be approaches that try to train police to be more empathetic, like implicit bias training. It tries to integrate them more into communities so they are, you know, in some ways on a more intimate basis with a lot of the people they're policing.

But the folks say those aren't the reforms that are going to get us free. Those aren't the reforms that are going to make the real difference, as long as you have a way of approaching safety that requires using the police to surveil communities and engage in stop and frisk — or stop and frisk on wheels.

Have you seen America change in the past year?

Segal: I tend to be an optimist in general, but I've seen great progress. I mean, it's sometimes two steps forward, one step back.

We have horrible unempathetic, horribly unsocially empathic behaviors in this country — slavery jumps out, of course. So we're not at all perfect. But we have undone some horrific laws in this country or ways of behaving, and we're moving in that path. So I'm cautiously optimistic. But it takes work. It's not something you can rest on at all. Every generation keeps pushing it forward.

Armour: Heck yes, and it's been very interesting. In some ways I see reason for pessimism, but in other ways I see reason for great, great optimism and celebration, frankly.

How can we all get better at showing empathy?

Segal: There's the golden rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." And I actually am not a believer of that — I think it's because I've had some really bad neighbors.

But the silver rule is: "Do not do unto others that which you do not want done to you." Meaning, "I don't have to love you. I don't have to like you, but I want to be treated well. So I'm going to treat you well."

The George Floyd video is so powerful. We need to ask, "What if that were your father? What if that was you? What if that were you who was facedown on the ground with your hands cuffed?"

That's where empathy can be powerful. I don't want to be killed lying on the street suffocating. Would you?

Considering the past year, do you believe more Americans are now finding empathy within, especially for people of other ethnicities?

Armour: Yes, yes, yes. I would have been more pessimistic before this past summer. I saw an outpouring of empathy and sympathy for the excruciating death of George Floyd. And I think one of the things we saw is that building empathy can itself be a political process, humanizing people who are "otherized."

We know that Black folk historically have been, and are still, otherized in America. And if you otherize an individual, it's harder to have empathy and sympathy for them.

That's part of what the otherization does: It robs them of claims to your sympathy and empathy. When you humanize them, when you recognize their humanity, you're able to establish a real firm basis for empathy and sympathy.

And that's what has been going on with, you know, Black Lives Matter for a long time — the effort to humanize the victims of police brutality. A lot of times, the victims of police brutality were otherized as somehow criminals who deserved what they got.

They all deserve our empathy and sympathy, care and concern. You shouldn't forfeit your humanity even if you have done something wrong in some way, or your right to be treated with human dignity.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.