Stealing the Language of Empathy and Anti-Racism

Justice with a swaggerOne striking thing of late is how the words “racist” and “ racism” often appear in the media without reference to the white racism underlying this society. The language of anti-racist analysis and action is now taken to serve conservative political ends (Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya).

In a recent column, Leonard Pitts, a leading media commentator, argues the naming of Judge Sotomayor “racist” by conservatives like Gingrich, Tancredo, and Limbaugh is about much more than political mudslinging:

This is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. . . . They made “liberal” such a vulgarity you’d never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote. Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance . . . conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance.

A very good point. They are not only co-opting and weakening the language of social grievance, but also intentionally taking the focus off the central reality of whites’ continuing racial oppression.

Over at the Dailykos blog, George Lakoff, influential linguistics professor, accents related points about conservatives appropriating the language and idea of “empathy”:

The conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.”

Lakoff ties the conservative attack on empathy as personal feelings to the attack by Gingrich and others on Sotomayor as “racist”:

[In their view} because of her personal feelings for her own kind — Latinos and women — she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up. The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the “liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists.

He also makes a very important point that by constantly repeating the comments on her as “racist,” liberal Democrats and other liberals are reinforcing this theme in the public mind. That should be replaced with a reframing that positions Gingrich and company as extraordinarily racist and anti-democratic, using that type of language. In addition, Lakoff suggests liberals, both Democrats and others, must speak about real empathy that links to social justice:

They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice.

Pitts and Lakoff are on target in tying these white-racist attacks on empathy and the language of anti-racism to a much larger reactionary political agenda. The attacks are not only on real multiracial democracy, but on organizational and individual efforts to break down systemic racism–that is, to probe deeply the systemic realities of racial oppression and to increase organizational efforts to overturn that system.

Recurring racial discrimination targeting Americans of color requires a breakdown of normal human empathy among whites. Racial oppression not only severely distorts human relationships but desensitizes the minds of racial oppressors. Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of the exploited others. The psychiatric term “alexithymia” describes individuals unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, other people. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going way beyond this individualistic concept to a concept of “social alexithymia.” Essential to being an oppressor in a racist society is a significantly reduced ability, or an inability, to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by racial oppression. And this involves many white individuals acting collectively both today and historically.

Since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, most whites have revealed a rather high level of social alexithymia, the sustained inability to relate to suffering of those oppressed. For centuries, systemic racism has both required and constantly bred a lack of empathy and recognition of the full humanity of Americans of color. Today, most whites still do not “see,” or do not wish to see, the impact of institutionalized racism or to recognize its determinative role in everyday life. A substantial majority persist in denying that white racism is systemic, commonplace, and devastating for its targets.

Today the challenge for those seeking to expand antiracist strategies includes the creation of widespread conditions where a great many whites will have to confront the catastrophic reality of the pain that the white-imposed system of racial oppression has caused Americans of color, especially including those with whom they come into daily contact.

It is this aggressive move in the direction of increasing real collective empathy and new invigorated organizations to expand that collective empathy that white conservatives and reactionaries seem most worried about.


  1. Great post, Joe. Wow. Something had been bothering me about RNC accusing Sotomayor of racism, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Thanks for, for lack of better words, finishing my sentence.

  2. Nquest

    Thanks for this topic. I find this interesting because I’ve had a recent debate over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message. The topic was different but one of the prevailing themes and the frozen, fixed in a “I Have Dream” like caricature, a lot of Whites, liberal and conservative alike, try to keep MLK in is the longsuffering character who appealed to Whites better angels and made direct appeals to them for empathy.

    Of course, the conservative backlash was swift, constant and consistent. White Liberal “guilt”, empathy by any other name, was to be demonized along with African-Americans themselves trying to make them/us feel guilty or underserving when it comes to affirmative action and trying to blame “Black culture” for inherited, intergenerational racial inequality.

  3. Joe

    Yes, Nquest, very good points. King would be appalled at how he has been “sold” and “commercialized,” especially since he likely was shot in part because he was radicalizing even more in his race/class analysis of US society and its imperialistic Vietnam war. People forget just how hated he was when he was assassinated in 1968, esp. among whites. Lots of whites celebrated his death. Now they “cherish” his memory. Indeed.

  4. Nquest

    Re: The Right’s practice of stealing…
    I’ve heard Black radio personalities speculate that conservative movement talk radio seemed to borrow heavily from the way radio stations were used in the Black community during the civil rights movement. And I couldn’t help but wonder if the kind of boycotts Fox News personalities organized against the Dixie Chicks earlier in the Iraq war, etc. were, more or less, conservatives adopting the tactics of the CRM. They definitely got the “politics of grievance” and “victimology” (their term when its somebody else but them) thing down.

  5. Thanks for a single word that captures such a powerful, and strategic, human capacity; alexithymia. I had fallen upon another term, akrasia, in my pursuit of a summation of my feelings about bureaucrats not using known technology to solve persistent social problems.

    I think this blog is going to serve as a platform for developing a working technology designed to eliminate white racism, and in doing so, make the implementation of similar terroristic acts a very plain and visible endeavor; one that is not open to be hidden by cultural blindness.

    I have been waiting for the white academic and technical elite to overcome their hesitance to bring their considerable analytic and technical skills to the this fight. I recognize their susceptibility to the same cultural forces that impact racists.

  6. Joe

    Emery, good point about akrasia, the old Greek term for the “state of acting against one’s better judgment,” as Wikipedia notes. We do need to use technology to fight the continuing reality of racial oppression. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Michael

    Nice topic. I have been following the writing of Tim Wise on this very topic. He is an anti-racist/white supremest activist. Below are a couple quote from him:
    ” It’s official…conservative white men (or at least their esteemed leaders) have lost their fu*#&ng minds, just in case you didn’t know it.”

    ” Limbaugh has taken asshattery to whole new levels with this. I love how white men think that if they don’t get everything they want, they are being made the new “oppressed minority” and being told to go to the “back of the bus.” Here is link to his Facebook page.

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