“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare writes, “And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” In my own life, and in particular between my leaving Edgefield County at age 17 and returning home forty years later, I have seen many stages and played many parts. Two parts I have never played, though, are those of an urban black young man, and of a city policeman. I can fool myself into thinking that I understand those parts in our nation’s theater of events, but at best I can struggle with that understanding, and struggle to empathize with each.
In our ongoing struggles called freedom and democracy in 21st century America, can empathy help us to understand why members of those groups so often see the other as “them” and not as just a part of “us”?
Given my own military background and white southern heritage, it is easier for me to empathize with the police. Ours is a society that appears to be fraying, with traditions fading and anarchy looming at society’s edges. We are a nation of laws, and laws imply law enforcement. Petty theft, or selling untaxed cigarettes, or “playing” with what appears to be a loaded weapon by pointing it at strangers, may be small breaches of order, but however small they cannot be allowed to stand. The line must be drawn somewhere, and if not here then where? Our police are the soldiers in an ongoing and vital war against barbarism, and there is little challenge in deciding who the barbarians are. They must be stopped before they reach our gates, well away from Edgefield County, South Carolina.
It is more difficult for me to empathize with black, urban youth. But that effort, too, is vital. It is the nature of youth to test boundaries; that testing always has occurred and always will, no matter where those boundaries are drawn. Our cities and, ever more frequently, our suburbs show this testing going on every day and every night. To many in majority black urban and suburban areas, the police are the adversaries who are not only ready but are eager to stop that testing – to act, react, and overreact whenever confrontation occurs on those boundaries. They are the enforcers, who have been given too much power and too much encouragement, leading directly to a pattern of overreaction. This pattern has too often proved lethal to any and all at that boundary, especially to those who are youthful and black, not only perpetrators but also bystanders. How much of this vision of the police is true, and how much is itself overreaction? Where you stand is, I suspect, very much a function of where you sit. It is hard to empathize with those who are different from yourself, no matter who and where. It is equally hard for those on both sides of that boundary.
Police lives matter. Murdering police is an action that rightfully is universally condemned, and cannot pass without a public and strong manifestation of warning against anyone who is even contemplating such a cowardly act. But, too, black lives matter – a phrase that now one can find on tee shirts along with “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe.” The outpouring of sympathy for the two New York City policemen who were recently gunned down is well deserved. But that does not mean that the other case – the case that asks, why do so many people feel compelled to stress that “Black Lives Matter” – has no justification. It does. Senseless death of one American at the hands of another harms all of us. We need to inspect our own thoughts and fears about one another, and develop that empathy without which we, all of us, are barbarians.