Midwest Voices

Ike Uri: Refugee crises and racial upheaval speak to an empathy deficit

Ethnic Rohingya gathered before receiving medical treatments at a temporary shelter in Indonesia. Thousands of refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, about half Rohingya and the rest from Bangladesh, according to the International Organization for Migration. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea.
Ethnic Rohingya gathered before receiving medical treatments at a temporary shelter in Indonesia. Thousands of refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, about half Rohingya and the rest from Bangladesh, according to the International Organization for Migration. The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea. The Associated Press

Although many countries continue to remove racial barriers and develop in regard to equality and opportunity, the modern world continues to display alarming prejudices.

Currently, European groups are protesting the arrival of refuges fleeing war-torn African nations. Thai authorities are denying asylum to overloaded boats of persecuted Burmese Muslims, and countless Americans are denied opportunity based on the color of their skin. While institutional changes help to address and combat discrimination, society must begin to focus on the cultivation of empathy, a capacity necessary to combat prejudices and build trust between disparate groups. Empathy is a deeply human emotion — the ability to feel another’s pain or understand the feelings of another characterizes human associations and relationships. However, a lack of empathy, particularly in regard to racial or religious groups, tears apart interpersonal trust and encourages mistreatment, and this disregard for the other seems to have a deep-seated intrinsic basis.

A study from the University of Milano-Bicocca finds that white people tend to empathize more when witnessing a white person experiencing pain than when witnessing a black person in the same situation. A similar study from the University of Virginia indicates that most people implicitly believe that black people are less sensitive to pain than white people.

Although implicit biases are not vocalized and public rhetoric tends to contradict such findings, these psychological facts significantly affect how various racial or ethnic groups are treated. Studies indicate that black defendants tend to receive harsher legal sentences than their white counterparts.

Young black individuals are more likely to receive severe punishments both in schools and courtrooms. A Pew survey finds that a racial bias exists concerning the grand jury verdict in the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown. The majority of white people agree with the grand jury and believe that race was not a factor. Black people overwhelmingly believe that race did play a role and that the grand jury decision was incorrect. Whether it is discrimination by law enforcement, a lack of educational opportunity, or the “de-facto” segregation that characterizes urban areas, discrimination continues to pull at America’s bonds.

Similar issues over race and immigration are plaguing Europe, where factions oppose immigration from the Middle East and Africa. This trend is particularly disturbing because most of those coming from Africa are fleeing war-torn states and traveling to Europe in perilous circumstances. Issues like these continue to divide the globe based on skin color and a neo-colonial hierarchy.

Common to all of these situations is a lack of empathy. Any European politician who opposes immigration might reconsider if his or her survival depended on crossing the Mediterranean in an overloaded raft.

Americans who claim that black men are thugs who need to get jobs might think differently if they grew up in a dangerous urban neighborhood and were denied educational opportunities afforded to more wealthy suburban neighborhoods. Empathy, being able to understand another’s life, opinions, and circumstances, is key to societal trust, respect, and cohesion.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that the ability to empathize and understand the role of the other is necessary for political and societal functioning. “Every society,” she writes, “contains within itself people who are prepared to live with others on terms of mutual respect and reciprocity, and people who seek the comfort of domination.” Today, in a modern multicultural and multiracial society, it is increasingly imperative to live in a community of respect and understanding.

More people must learn to empathize and understand the situation of the other. This will allow us to move from a society of division and unequal opportunity to a society of reciprocity that holds more respect for human life, abandoning the arbitrary and self-created need to exert dominance.

Ike Uri of Lawrence is a student at the University of Kansas, studying sociology and Russian language. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.

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