A few years ago, I was having a drink with a friend of mine. We were celebrating her landing a new job as the general counsel of a publicly traded corporation. She was in her early 40’s and was one of the rising stars in Houston’s legal community. She had begun her career as in the legal department in one of the large energy companies and worked her way up the corporate ladder. She was very excited at the prospect of now running a major law in-house law department on her own.
Not long before our meeting, I had been stopped for speeding on an out-of-town trip. The encounter had resulted in a humorous exchange between the officer and me and I told her story. Her reaction to the story was not what I expected. She said, “I am terrified when I get stopped by the police.”
I was startled by her response. Sitting before me was an incredibly accomplished and attractive young woman. She was always coiffed and dressed to the nines. She drove a new BMW. I might be irritated about being stopped, but terrified? Why in the world would she be terrified?
The answer was, of course, that she was African-American.
It was an epiphanal moment for me. I had many African-American friends. Mickey Leland and I had traveled together, including a trip to Cuba to negotiate the release of political prisoners. In college I had taken UH’s black history course. I had been to many African-American church services and I ran a firm that was one of the most diverse law firms in the country.
But it was not until that moment, when I saw in her eyes the anxiety and sadness that she would be treated differently by the police than I would be, that I understood how different the experiences are for white and black people when interacting with the police.
Empathy is a fundamental human emotion. We evolved to have a heighten sense of empathy because it promoted cooperation and, as result, our success as a species. But empathy evolved at a time that we were still very tribal, and empathy primarily reinforced our tribal bonds and cooperation. As a result, we do not naturally feel empathy for people for which we do not feel some tribal bond.
We have been gradually overcoming that tribal limitation to our empathy. The great faith traditions have preached the universality of humanity, that all people are brothers and sisters. Science has taught us that at the fundamental molecular level we are 99.9% the same. But millions of years of evolution do not give way to these more noble sentiments easily.
I tried to watch the eight and half minute video of George Floyd being pinned to the ground by the Minneapolis police officer. I could not finish it. It made me physically ill.
I wish we could wave a magic wand and make all inequities in the world go away. I wish there were some easy answer, some law we could pass to “fix” the problem. But the solution is what every great faith tradition teaches. It will require a change in peoples’ hearts.
Author Steven Aitchison has said that “People change for two main reasons: either their minds have been opened or their hearts have been broken.” Hopefully the tragic death of George Floyd will do both for our country.