Racial Bias and the Ability to Feel Others’ Pain



Hernan Vera and I have written about the importance of the break down of empathy as part of the creation of racist systems, including discrimination and its racial framing. Discover magazine’s blog has reported recently on research study by the Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti, who

recruited white and black Italian volunteers and asked them to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being poked. When people watch such scenes, it’s actually possible to measure their brain’s empathic tendencies. By simulating how the prick would feel, the brain activates the neurons of the observer’s hand in roughly the same place. These neurons become less excitable in the future. By checking their sensitivity, Avenanti could measure the effect that the video had on his recruits …. most interestingly of all, he found that the recruits (both white and black) only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, the volunteers were unmoved by the pain they saw.

Interestingly, like we have argued,

Avenanti actually thinks that empathy is the default state, which only later gets disrupted by racial biases. He repeated his experiment using brightly coloured violet hands, which clearly didn’t belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ weird hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed a strong empathic response, reacting as they would to hands of their own skin tone. … strong evidence that the lack of empathy from the first experiment stems not from mere novelty, but from racial biases.

He also gave the recruits the Implicit Association Test

which looks for hidden biases by measuring how easily people make positive or negative connections between different ethnic groups. For example, white Italians are typically quicker to associate positive words with the term “Italian” and negative ones with the term “African”. And the faster they make those connections, the greater the differences in their responses to the stabbed black and white hands. … All in all, Avenanti says when we see pain befall a person from our own racial group, it immediately triggers resonant activity in our own nervous system. When we see the same event happening to someone of a different race, these simulations are weaker and take longer to form.

These anti-empathetic reactions are most serious for those who have the greatest power to oppress others, to cause great, routine, and recurring pain in racialized others, which is typically whites in Europe and the United States.

In the U.S. case whites’ recurring discriminatory actions targeting Americans of color require a breakdown of normal human empathy. Most social theorists have missed the importance of the fact that all human life begins in empathetic networks–the dyad of mother and child. Usually central to these first networks is basic human empathy, a desire and ability to understand the feelings of others. Without empathy on the part of mothers and other relatives, no child would survive. As it develops, racial oppression severely distorts human relationships and desensitizes the minds of those oppressing others.

Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of racialized others. Psychiatrists use the term alexithymia to people unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, others. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going beyond this individualistic interpretation to a concept of social alexithymia. Essential to being an oppressor is a significantly reduced ability to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by oppression. Social alexithymia thus seems essential to the creation and maintenance of a racist society.

What needs most to be explained is not the reality of human empathy and solidarity—the problem often stated by western philosophers–but rather how this empathy for others gets destroyed and how human beings develop anti-empathetic inclinations essential to racial oppression.

‘Race Riots’ a Misnomer for White Mob Action

Recent news reports from Italy contain reports about “race riots,” but in fact, this is a misnomer.  A more accurate term would be “white mob action.” In this case, against African immigrants in Italy.    According to one report, Italian authorities moved more than 1,000 people, mostly temporary workers from sub-Saharan Africa to immigrant centers around Italy in an operation that lasted from Saturday through to the early hours of Sunday.

The clashes started on Thursday, when a gang of white youths in a car fired air rifles at a group of African immigrants returning from work on farms. The attack set off a night of rioting by dozens of Africans, who smashed car windows with steel bars and stones and set cars and rubbish bins on fire. That in turn sparked more attacks from residents determined to drive the immigrants out of the area.

The Italian context is obviously very different from the U.S., but there are also some similarities in which this form of intolerance is manifest.  In Italy, approximately 8,000 undocumented immigrants work in Calabria, most of them working as day laborers picking fruit and vegetables.   This is very similar to the position of Mexican undocumented workers in the U.S. who labor in the same kinds of agricultural jobs and endure a not dissimilar form of intolerance here.

The rhetoric from right-wing politicians in Italy seems akin to that espoused in the U.S. as well.  Roberto Calderoli, a minister from the same far-right Northern League party as interior minister Maroni, said with unemployment at 18 per cent in the south of Italy, “work should go to the Italians… not to illegal immigrants.”

Of course, I’m sure there are important differences between the U.S. and Italian contexts, and I look forward to reading the dissertation about that at some future date.

What I want to get back to, though, is the rather striking (at least, to me)  use of the term “race riot,”  in many of the news reports about these incidents.    This term seems to suggest that there was some sort of equal fight between two groups.  In fact, this was clearly white-led, mob action directed toward (black) African immigrants.   The use of the term “race riot” is a case in which the term obscures more than it explains or accurately describes.

This is not the first time that the term “race riot” has been used to blur the culpability of white-led mob action.   Over the weekend, I visited the New York Historical Society to see their “Lincoln” exhibit, which included an extensive exploration of the events in New York City known as “The Draft Riots.”  (Disappointingly, the NYHistorical Society has a crappy website, so I’ll link to some better resources.)  What I was reminded of, seeing that exhibit, is that the “Draft Riots” were in fact, white-led mob action, much like what’s happening now in Italy.   Here’s some information about what actually went on during the Draft Riots:

By analyzing who and what the rioters targeted for attack during the riot we can begin to understand the complicated social, economic, and political conflicts that divided New York City’s citizens in July 1863. The city’s black citizens were perhaps the most obvious and visible targets of the rioters’ wrath. By the end of the first day of rioting, It was not safe for African Americans to appear in public. Rioters beat individual black citizens and, in several instances, brutally murdered and mutilated. African-American men. Black New Yorkers weren’t even safe inside their homes as roaming bands of rioters attacked black neighborhoods. Not only were African Americans in danger; rioters also attacked white New Yorkers who provided shelter for endangered African Americans, sacking and burning the homes of white sympathizers.

This is not a “race riot.”  It’s a mob action, led by whites, intended to terrorize blacks.  This was true in the U.S. in the 1860s (and for decades following), and it appears to be happening in Italy today.   Let’s call it what it is, shall we?