Between the World and Me: Empathy Is a Privilege

Between the World and Me: Empathy Is a Privilege

The Atlantic

John Paul Rollert, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science
University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates have made race and empathy central to their writing, but their conclusions point in radically different directions.

Don’t despair. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, that’s what President Obama told him at the end of a White House meeting in 2013. Coates had criticized the president on his blog for favoring the rhetoric of black self-help over an honest conversation about structural racism. Having written and reflected extensively on race, Obama made it plain to Coates that he took exception to the critique, ending what must have been a tense conversation with his brief words of encouragement. The president reportedly took along Coates’s new book on his recent trip to Martha’s Vineyard. If he found time to read it, he knows the younger man didn’t take his advice to heart.

Obama is not an acknowledged interlocutor of Between the World and Me, but the book may be read as a skeptical reply to the putative power of empathy to transcend racial divisions—a leitmotif of Obama’s two books and a guiding conceit of his presidency. In The Audacity of Hope, the book Obama wrote in 2006 to test enthusiasm for a possible White House run, he describes empathy as both the “heart of my moral code” and a “guidepost for my politics.” Defining it succinctly as a successful attempt to “stand in somebody’s else’s shoes and see through their eyes,” Obama regards empathy not as an exceptional gesture but an organizing principle for ethical behavior and even a preferred way of being. By cultivating our capacity for empathy, he says, we are forced beyond “our limited vision.” We unburden ourselves of the trivial rigidities that divide us, allowing us to “find common ground” even in the face of our sharpest disagreements…

…Trauma is an irremediable fact of Coates’s work. “I am wounded,” he tells his son. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The sentiment hints at another book Coates might have written, one that sees him transcend the crises of his youth for a new understanding in adulthood. That story is more or less the one Obama tells in Dreams of My Father, his first book and, like Coates’s, a lyrical memoir that presents the author’s life as an allegory for race in America. That the two men draw such divergent conclusions—Coates detects a “specious hope” in the picture of a white cop embracing a black boy after a Ferguson protest, whereas Obama considers the interracial harmony of his own family hope at its most audacious—is not merely the consequence of two very different sets of lived experience, but the lessons drawn from them and their implications for empathic transcendence.

Especially when juxtaposed with Between the World and Me, the chapters of Dreams of My Father that profile Obama’s adolescence are striking for the studied dispassion that has marked the president’s decisions in office and seems essential to his character. When he describes the racist episodes of his youth, it is not merely that they lack the “visceral” menace of Coates’s experience—he revealingly calls them a “ledger of slights”—they seem only to scratch him, they never scar…

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