An Exercise in Empathy

Eric Garner protests in Boston

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t…

I awoke abruptly from a troubled sleep and I literally could. Not. Breathe.

I stumbled out of bed and into the hall, banging into the walls, rushing to the bathroom commode.

I looked down into that porcelain abyss hoping and dreading the spasms that soon rocked my stomach.
It all came pouring out of me like I was a burst balloon.

After a brief eternity it was over.

My lungs sucked in air. My mind was awake.

I shivered realizing the video was still replaying in my head. The video of Eric Garner’s death.

I had watched that video with the same morbid curiosity as everyone else.

A heavyset black man choked to death by police as he screamed “I can’t breathe,” over and over again.

But now, merely a week after the police officer who killed Michael Brown was let free without so much as a criminal trial, the same thing happened to the cop who killed Eric Garner.

Death ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.

Officer using a banned choke hold.

No weapon, no resisting arrest.

All of it caught on video.

And No Trial.

That set it going again – the snuff film of Garner’s death might never stop playing itself over-and-over on the youtube screen behind my eye lids.

Why was this bothering me so much?

It was horrible, sure, but I’m a white man. This is unlikely to ever happen to me or mine.

When I see the police, the worst they’re liable to do to me is give me a ticket for speeding.

Black men – especially young black men – have it much worse. They’re 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white contemporaries.

That’s frightening. Even if it probably wouldn’t happen to me.

The thing is – even though Eric Garner and I are very different, when I look at his picture, I see myself.

We’re both around the same age, same build, both have facial hair, both are fathers. There are more similarities than differences. The thing that separates us the most is the color of our skin.

When I look at him, I don’t see a danger to society. I see a guy who looked pretty friendly, a gentle giant – a guy whose house I’d have loved to visit for a cookout. I could see myself eating barbecued brisket on his porch sharing a joke and looking desperately for a napkin.

Many people don’t see that. When they look at his picture they see an OTHER, someone distinctly not like them, someone dangerous.

I don’t know really how you bridge that divide.

When I was a kid, I went to a very diverse public school. It taught me to get along with people who society labeled as different than me. It taught me that the label was a lie – we really weren’t all that dissimilar. I made lifelong friends of various races – people I probably would never have met otherwise.

The other day, I even got a strange instant message on Facebook from one of my black high school friends living out of state.

He said that he had been reading my blog and he was struck by how much I’d changed. He said I’d come a long way from the kid in high school who thought movies like “Boyz n the Hood” were exaggerated.

We talked for a while about it. I was surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything different at all, but he’s right.

I had clung to the notion that black grievances – though based in fact – were media contrivances to sell rap albums and movie tickets. I wanted to believe it so much. It was almost a mantra against news stories that seemed to indicate otherwise.

But at some point in the last few years I had given up that conceit, and I never even realized it.

I’m sure my job has a lot to do with it. I’m a public school teacher in a district much like the one I went to when I was growing up. My kids are mostly minorities.

You can’t go to work day in, day out and not come to empathize with the plight of people of color. You can’t see their miseries, fears, hopes and joys without sharing in them to some extent.

When Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed, their deaths hit me hard, too. I saw them as my students, my kids.

But Eric Garner wasn’t like any of them. He was like their father. He was like me.

Perhaps if our schools still weren’t so segregated, more people would see it. Perhaps more of us would recognize our common humanity.

Too often we live separate lives in separate worlds. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t work in the same jobs. We pass each other by uneasily because we don’t know each other beyond the grisly accounts on the TV news and police blotter.

So, yeah, we need to fix our broken justice system. We need independent prosecutors, body cameras, police training and a host of other things. But more than anything, we need an introduction to each other. We need to be a part of each others lives. Reducing school segregation may be a place to start.

Maybe then we could all breathe easier.

This article has also been published on the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association blog.

10 thoughts on “An Exercise in Empathy

  1. Thank you for this. I am white and I went to a high school that was 45% black, then on to a community college that was about 70% black (and had a black-oriented curriculum, especially in the humanities). I couldn’t agree more about the importance of school integration (without the tracking that segregated my high school). Segregation decreases empathy and increases alienation. I can’t believe the lack of empathy for black people I am seeing in white people around me, and all over the internet, but I believe that growing up segregated (and insulated) plays a huge part in that.


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