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Empathy and our nation’s future

Eric Weltman

Empathy and our nation’s future

By 2050, the United States will be majority non-white.  Latinos, African Americans, Asians and other “minorities” will constitute approximately 54 percent of our population, according to Census projections.  We must decide what kind of society to create from this diverse mix: separate and unequal or integrated and equal.

A recent University of Michigan study is a call to action for those seeking the latter. Researchers found that college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts from the 1980s and 1990s.  Present-day students are less interested in the perspectives of friends and are less concerned for the unfortunate.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, appreciate and respond to the feelings of other people. It is a fundamental building block of a healthy society. Empathy helps us understand our differences and our common ground. It enables us to go beyond the superficial to identify shared interests and accomplish collective goals.

In an increasingly heterogeneous society, empathy is essential for cooperation and social cohesion, and the pursuit of our nation’s highest ideals, including fairness, justice and equality.

The University of Michigan study joins a growing body of research that has found Americans growing more individualistic and isolated. Other studies have documented intensifying narcissism among college students since the late 1980s. Our society is becoming more disconnected and lonely, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, Harvard psychiatrists concluded in their book “The Lonely American.”

A number of factors may contribute to this trend. The rising use of electronic social media, such as Facebook, along with e-mail and other digital communication fosters shallow contact lacking the emotional texture of face-to-face interactions. Longer commutes, more time watching television and isolated suburban living reduces social connectivity, as Robert Putnam described in his book “Bowling Alone.” And following 9-11, the Bush administration’s “us versus them” dynamic fostered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility toward “others.”

Yet the need for understanding, compassion and solidarity — for empathy — has never been greater.  Barack Obama’s election lent some credence to the notion that we live in a “post-racial” society.  But huge disparities in opportunity persist for poor people, immigrants and people of color, with injustices perpetuating poverty and other social ills. Black men are 6.5 times more likely to be in prison than white men. Income inequality is at an all-time high. Fifty-six years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, schools are becoming more separate and unequal.

Today, California, Hawaii, Texas and New Mexico are already majority non-white, with millions of immigrants changing the face of our nation. This diversity provides conservatives with a tool and opportunity to construct their vision of society — one that is separate and unequal — by tapping into anger and frustration to pit Americans against each other.

There are alternatives that harmonize with our nation’s values. The empathy decline is a social phenomenon with social solutions: policies producing awareness, understanding and solidarity among all people — and doing so by fostering meaningful interactions, nurturing connections and creating an environment of mutual trust, respect and need. Chief among these are housing and education policies to promote integration.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assault on segregation was rooted in awareness that separation produces ignorance and stereotypes. Unfortunately, our communities are growing more divided along racial and class lines. A major contributor to the problem, notes Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin, is the parochialism of local governments and their power to exclude poor people and people of color. Municipalities can use zoning and other regulations to restrict affordable housing, while school districts achieve segregation as effectively as Jim Crow.

In 2008, Obama, then candidate for president, marked Martin Luther King Day with a speech decrying our nation’s “empathy deficit.”  He described our “inability to recognize ourselves in one another” and called upon Americans to see that, in King’s words, “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Indeed, whether that destiny is one of shared, sustained prosperity may depend on our ability and willingness to understand, identify with and care for each other.

Eric Weltman is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the former organizing director for CPPAX, a Boston-based progressive organization.