On Empathy and #BlackLivesMatter

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Jesus, Matthew 5:4

Mourn with those who mourn. – The Apostle Paul, Romans 12: 15

We’ve seen it happen multiple times.

A black person is killed by the police. When there is video and the person is found after the fact to be unarmed they become a social media hashtag.

Soon folks begin saying things aren’t clearly visible in the video – you can’t see their hands here, it’s blurry there, what happened before the filming started?, etc. – and to give the police officers the benefit of the doubt. Cops are good people, we hear, and they have a tough job. They might have honestly feared for their safety. Wait till the police conduct their internal investigation and see what comes of it.

After a bit of time, when certain cable news media members have had time to research the dead victims, some trivial piece of information (the number of traffic tickets they’ve had, some minor drug offense, pictures on social media, etc.) is shared in such a way to justify suspicion of the dead victim.

Over and over and over.

There are some who think #BlackLivesMatter is a problematic slogan and/or movement because they assume it implies that black lives matter more than white lives, or police lives, or all lives. These people are wrong.

What #BlackLivesMatter insists, rather, is that black lives matter despite the ways American society treats them as if they don’t. #BlackLivesMatter insists that black lives matter because they’re human lives. They’re lives connected to other lives – parents, children, colleagues – just like everyone else’s life. They’re lives created in the image of God. And they’re too often not treated in this way.

If you are a person who consistently gives more of the benefit of the doubt – more empathy to the lived context of police who have killed unarmed or peaceful people – than you do to people who have been killed by police, you are implying that their lives matter less than the lives of police officers or other victims of violence.

Why is it that you must point out every single detail of every single case in such a way as to imply the necessary guilt of people who have been killed in the street for nonviolent or nonexistent offenses? Why is it that you refuse to think about how hard it must be to be accused of things you didn’t do or to be treated in a way disproportionate to any action you’ve taken? Why do you not first empathize with the victims of violence or their families? Why do you, over and over and over, assume that black victims of police violence are guilty, “bad,” or justifiably killed?

It seems to those who aren’t inside your head but see your words and actions that it’s because you don’t think their lives deserve the same empathy as that of police officers or others. It seems it’s because you don’t think their lives matter as much as others.

This rhetoric, even if you don’t actively believe that black lives matter less than other lives, creates an environment where “bad apples” get away with their crimes. It creates a social and political environment where individual police (like Daniel Holtzclaw) can assume that black folks won’t get fair treatment by the legal system and therefore feel free to exploit them. It supports a social and political structure that systematically imprisons and kills black people at rates widely disproportionate to their population or rates of crime. And all of this, in its circular fashion, contributes to more and more people lacking empathy for black lives filmed almost weekly being killed by police for no justifiable reason.

That’s why folks say #BlackLivesMatter. Because everything, from federal laws to comments on social media, suggests that too many people don’t believe this to be true.

Dear reader, please, the next time you see a video of an unarmed or innocent black person being killed by a police officer (and it will happen again in a week or two) try to have some empathy for the victim of violence before making excuses for their killer. Mourn with those who mourn.

Or, at least, refrain from your comments about the minutiae in the video or the difficulty of being a cop. Because what your words imply, whatever their intent or specific words you use, is that black lives don’t really matter at all.

James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

James McCarty III

James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

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