“Black People Feel Less Pain”: On the Racial Empathy Gap, Obamacare, and the Government Shutdown




“Black people are hard. They don’t feel pain the way you do.” Teju Cole tweeted this yesterday, along with a link to an article on Slate from last June, “I Don’t Feel Your Pain,” in which the topic of empathy was explored in relation to America’s ongoing racial disparities, and the ways in which lack of empathy strengthens them. In the essay, author Jason Silverstein writes, “for many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap.” Multiple studies have confirmed that people—all races, not just white people, and all education levels and professions, including medical personnel—”assume black people feel less pain than white people.” Silverstein explains that this has led to situations where “because they are believed to be less sensitive to pain, black people are forced to endure more pain,” including, but not limited to, receiving less anesthesia and pain medication than they would if they were white. Beyond this disparate treatment in the world of healthcare, it is believed that this racial empathy gap is at least partially responsible for the vast difference in prison sentences handed down to black men and women in comparison with those given to white people convicted of the same crimes. And because, remarkably, this empathy gap, this internalized assumption that black people, as Cole put it, “don’t feel pain the way you do,” is actually employed by people of every race and of every class, it can’t be shrugged off as something that only the most vile racists think or feel. It’s a systemic problem that, Silverstein concludes, needs to be addressed by “perspective-taking exercises” and “empathy induction” in order to combat the stereotypes that are engrained in most of us.

But so, Cole wasn’t the only one with empathy on the brain. An editorial in the New York Times, Rich People Just Care Less,” also addressed the empathy gap, only instead of looking at it in racial terms, it was explored by looking at economic and class differences, and how those effect who exactly Americans want to help. The fact that race, class, and economic privilege are all things that overlap is no coincidence, as the bottom line turns out to be that “research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.” The author of this piece, Daniel Goleman, believes that the rapidly rising economic inequality in this country is due to the fact that wealthy people can’t relate to those who struggle and so they don’t care to help them through programs like food stamps, universal healthcare, and other things, and so, ultimately, “reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.”

So much of this seems kind of obvious, right? We all remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade, don’t we? And having the concept of empathy as taught by Atticus Finch drilled into our little, plastic minds. That whole novel is about empathy! Empathy towards African-Americans, empathy toward strange, quiet men who lurk about town following young girls, and empathy toward rich, old racist white women who have cancer and who don’t take morphine. It’s not, of course, about empathy for impoverished and abused young white women though, because they are irredeemable sluts. Ah. Well, number me among those who don’t understand why this book is universally beloved, while still appreciating the glory that was Gregory Peck, and while also believing in the power of empathy. Even so, empathy is something that is explicitly taught to children in the same way that they are taught to share toys and not copy each other’s homework. Except that, similar to both of those behaviors, empathy is also something that we are implicitly taught to outgrow. There always comes a certain point when we’re growing up that we realize that we shouldn’t share our toys—ownership is a fundamental part of being American! And while cheating is certainly bad, collaborative work can lead to a better end result, and hey, everyone cheats a little. And as for empathy? Well, while it’s still nice as a concept, if we spent all our time worrying about what was going on with the most downtrodden of people, we’d lose our minds.

And so despite everyone knowing about empathy and maybe feeling a certain amount of abstract horror at the research that proves black Americans get substandard treatment in myriad ways, simply because their pain and feelings are not valued as highly as those of white Americans, this type of research almost gives Americans a pass in the empathy department because it makes it seem like it’s a foundational problem, not one that is continually perpetuated, or even manipulated, by the powers that be. Except that, guess what? It is. And if you want to see a great example of how lack of empathy for black people and for economically struggling and even impoverished Americans is affecting all of our lives, all you have to do is look at the current government shutdown and the ongoing, idiotic fight over Obamacare to see how the racial and economic empathy gap are damaging the country as a whole. The fact is that the Republicans (Tea Partiers, whatever, there’s little difference) are holding the government hostage over a program that is designed to help the people that are least able to help themselves. And they are able to do this because they can depend on the fact that most Americans don’t think that the un- or underinsured are even really suffering. The Republicans are counting on the fact that enough Americans will think, “They can handle it. They can tough it out.”

And you know what? The Republicans are basically right in assuming that. After all, this is how they’ve managed to reduce the welfare rolls, and cut money for the food stamp program…they know that the attitude of so many Americans will be unsympathetic because the suffering of the lower classes is such a distant, abstract thing that it doesn’t even seem real. Even Americans attempts at empathy toward the economically unprivileged are ridiculous, as demonstrated with things like the food stamp challenge, wherein people try and live off the same amount of money that food stamp recipients use to buy groceries. The problem with the challenge is that, rather than building empathy, it makes the participants feel like they’re achieving some sort of victory, and like they’re doing a tough thing that they could never actually handle in their “real lives.” So by doing this, they’re explicitly acknowledging that they don’t think they’re “tough” enough to live the lifestyle of a person living in poverty. It’s probably the only time you’ll hear that the problem with rich people is that they feel too much. And so, because they’re not as tough as people who actually live on food stamps or who live in public housing? Well, those people just get further othered and categorized as “tough” and the kind of people who just “don’t feel pain.”

Perhaps there is no easy way to solve this racial and economic empathy gap. Or perhaps there is. Perhaps we shouldn’t depend on our flawed populace to simultaneously, miraculously learn how to be empathetic. Perhaps we should make sure instead that there are government programs (like food stamps, like Obamacare) in place to go beyond the limits of our empathetic leanings. Those programs are supposed to counteract the inequalities that many government officials would like nothing more than to perpetuate in an effort to stay in power and to keep others powerless. Long gone are the days when politicians even tried to “feel our pain.” Now, we’re left with those who can say with a straight face that we don’t even feel it to begin with, that it doesn’t even exist, that we don’t even exist. This is unsustainable though, notably so with Obamacare, which is designed to offer relief for everyone who needs insurance. Those people include, of course, many traditionally economically disadvantaged groups—the people who don’t feel pain. But because American healthcare has long been such a joke, the uninsured’s numbers also include many who are more vocal about their needs and their pain, and have a better chance of being listened to. Hopefully, the fight for the needs of people in pain and in distress will continue, so that even if the empathy gap doesn’t disappear immediately, it will not be ignored any longer.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. Reading this in December, 2016 really saddens me. We have not moved forward yet from when this article is written. Can’t stop trying though. We can do better.


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