“Understanding” versus “Empathizing” in Regards to Racism
Clay Rivers

Clay Rivers : The Racial/Human Empathy Dilemma

Hello Clay,

I’ve done quite some soul-searching in deciding whether to answer you here, not least because I am not ‘Black’. I am African. Having lived in the midst of legalised racist ideology, I’d like to share a few ideas and insights, I have learnt and observe of America from a distance. One of the fundamental things being I learned being raised through the era of Apartheid is understanding that the greatest challenge to change is mindset. Accessing it and controlling it has been the objective of ideology for as long as humans have gathered in societal formations.

To give fuller context to my commentary, I’d like to go back a little: The first public expression of socio-political and economic ambition set out as a strategy to win hearts and minds of the populace, visualised in iconographic detail, as an actual “campaign”, was that of Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor: 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

He commissioned thousands of sculptures which were then hoisted across the Empire and he ensured the image of his likeness spoke for his lofty aspirations, as well as to his human side, depicting him as a commanding, authoritative, yet open and approachable to ‘Everyman’. The sophistication of his psychological understanding of what was needed to win the hearts and minds of a vast populace as well as his military, in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, is clear in the details of the sculpture.

He wears the military uniform detailing battles, draped with the garb of leadership in a pose that is both poised and authoritative, unafraid of battle, yet human in his bare feet.

This carefully crafted image became the iconic emblem of the Roman Empire and what being Roman embodied. It ensured loyalty for the myriad of messages it sent to anyone seeing it for the first or thousandth time.

America today is effectively a politcially ‘broken’ society and for the purposes of my reply, I liken it to the state of Rome after Caesar’s death. It is in need of repair. There is a wonderful photographic essay here on Medium by Chris Arnade titled “Two Isolated Americas”, which gets to the heart of the matter, it seems to me : mainstream America and those effectively disenfranchised. https://medium.com/@Chris_arnade/two-isolated-americas-fae2720fb48#.hwsz8bg4d

These two worlds live back to back and exist in physical proximity but in experience and mindsets, universes apart. They have no way to identify with the other, since they have never communicated with one another in any real, let alone meaningful way. In the canyon between these two Americas sits the Constitution, a document that speaks to the Idea of America. In a reply to Glenn Beck’s The Battle vs The War

I ask why.

At the core of your dilemma, at the core of America’s dilemma, lies I believe the basic alienation of America from itself and what is tragically playing out in this dearth of unjustified killing spree of civiliations by an agency of the state, is country finally confronted its soulless-ness. This entire election campaign is that big reveal. America is still an Idea, not a country. And without the genuine charisma of a leadership that can heal this primary injury and make a nation from the ideal of its idea of itself, conjuring any kind of genuine humanity between people is a bit like striving to heal an amputation with a band aid.

As an outsider, I see qualification justifying qualification justifying what qualifies qualification ad infinitum, and within this kind of battlefield, it cannot but become an all-encompassing war zone of entitlement. It defeats its own ambition. No one can realistically expect empathy, understanding, sympathy, even less, compassion when it is about who is more entitled than the next because of xyz. This perpetuates and exacerbates the very problem you wish to resolve. As I see it, if the Constitution really is worth a damn, then it should be the responsibility of every one to make it real in their lives: no one is more deserving than the next for whatever reason: All Are Equally Deserving. All lives should matter. Period. Life should matter. How it is lived should matter. To every single person. Owning that responsibility for how it is lived, how we all live it, across the globe, is a universal challenge, not just an American one.

I am white. I am African. It is totally politically incorrect to regard myself a white African, but this is who I am. I am not an invader, or a colonialist. I was and am of African soil. Africa is not just my birthright, yet I am denied it. Is that fair? Is that right? Is that just? I stood up for a principle I believed in and lost everything. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Before it, I had to lose my own humanity before I understood what it means being human, being compassionate, living with dignity. Only when we give up seeing lives in colour, experience by race, culture or religion, but as human, so similar in all our diversity, will dignity regain its voice.

Walking in someone’s shoes does not cut it. It is only ever an approximation and therein lies the beast. Black lives matter, absolutely. Boxing it in, selling it as marginalised, or any other label, makes it abstract, and not real.

Police shootings on its current scale seem to be symptomatic of a very broken system. This is not to say it diminishes accountability, not in the least. What has broken? Why and how did it break? Why is America still an Idea embodied by its constitution rather than its people?

Its these aching questions that seem to me to belie the agony to which there is seemingly a wall of affluent indifference. Two Americas living back to back under one sky and no one stepping out into the breach: each standing behind their fence demanding the other get it or get ‘over it’.

Maybe stop demanding and extend a hand. Invite each other over, get to know each other over drinks, a game, a love of… whatever. It does not matter. Make one another human again; that’s where the heart of empathy, compassion, sympathy and caring is found. Make a country.

Augustus famously said “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

Your America needs each of you to build it. It cannot build itself, be it brick or marble. You are what make it shine. Everyone needs to make everyone else count. What else is a country, a nation, if not a community at heart? America might be broken in two, but heart you have in abundance. Let it beat.