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The Terrible Costs Of Selective Empathy

We asked a group of writers to consider the forces that have shaped our lives in 2017. Here, writer Clint Smith explores the limits of empathy, asking why some victims of tragedy are given more attention and resources than others.

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In my hometown of New Orleans, grief is a public spectacle that, somewhat paradoxically, necessitates celebration. The dead are not mourned so much as they are posthumously venerated with music and dance. Funeral processions leave the church service and transform into brass-inspired soul train lines on the way to the final place of rest. Trumpets blare with reverence for the dead and disregard for what we are told mourning should look like, each spirited buzz of the horn instructing those within its radius to sway and shout and sing and smile for the life of the person in the casket that’s paraded amongst them. The euphonic clamor of the blaring band draws neighbors out of their homes as they join the chorus of clapping hands and tapping dress shoes, watching the corpse of a stranger dance into the afterlife.

New Orleans taught me that mourning takes many different forms. Where I’m from, mourning is spirited. It is loud. The cavalcades of song and dance through the streets are meant to show that every life deserves to be recognized; it is a performance of gratitude, a statement that this person meant something to us and should be honored. Perhaps it was the teacher who first taught me how to read. Perhaps it was the grocer who always had the freshest shrimp, who asked my mother how her day was going each time she entered the store. These processions were a reminder that a life does not have to have been widely acclaimed to be celebrated, and it is often those who are least renowned who have impacted us most.

This is what my home taught me about mourning. But this year, I’ve been reminded of another facet of grief: While it can take many different forms, we often are inconsistent with who we deem worthy of mourning at all.

A life does not have to have been widely acclaimed to be celebrated, and it is often those who are least renowned who have impacted us most.

I grew up in New Orleans when it was the murder capital of the nation. Every night on the evening news I saw images of black people who had been murdered in hypersegregated communities stripped of resources and opportunities for mobility. I watched as they were blamed for their own demise. I bore witness to the sense of indifference that clouded their deaths. And I couldn’t help but see the way that crime against whiter or more affluent communities was treated with a different kind of outrage — one that garnered attention that many black people in the city were never granted. The local news covered the death of young black men as if it were predestined, business as usual. The police departments harassed the same people whose murders they would leave unsolved at alarmingly disportionate rates. The same continues to happen today.

As a child, when I noticed that different victims weren't afforded the same attention or resources, I felt a profound sense of confusion, though I did not yet have the language to name this injustice. The double standard of empathy is no longer new to me, but this past year its manifestations have felt more pernicious.

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In October, terrorists in Mogadishu, Somalia, used a truck bomb to kill over 350 people. With each passing day, the death toll continued to climb, more and more bodies pulled from the scattered rubble. More recently, over 300 people were killed in an attack in Egypt. Both events, which happened within a month of one another, are among the world’s deadliest attacks in recent years. What is illuminating and unsettling about these attacks is how they demonstrate that the racial, religious, or national identities of the victims are what often shape our collective response to their deaths.

Had 300 people been killed in the shadow of Big Ben, how much time would the majority of Americans spend mourning the loss of life? Had hundreds met their end while shopping along the Champ-Élysées, how long would we spend recounting names of the victims? Had a truck bomb detonated in Times Square, would those lives be more worthy of grief than an attack on a market in Kabul?

In many ways, we have already seen the answers. Prior to Somalia and Egypt, the largest terrorist attacks this year have taken place in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria — countries those in the West see only as war torn and rife with geopolitical conflict. For some, a report of violence there can seem like just another tragic event in a series of many — terrible, yes, but perhaps inevitable, perhaps normal (as if horrific acts of violence could ever really be normal).

When those touched by tragedy remain caricatures on the opposite side of a man-made border, their lives become abstractions.

People in the United States are more likely to have visited cities like Paris, London, or Brussels (rather than Mogadishu, Kabul, or Lahore), and therefore might be able to imagine themselves or loved ones as victims of attacks that have happened in these places. That’s one of the reasons why the atrocities that received the most attention in the United States in the form of sustained television coverage, online discussion, and hashtags were not in the Middle East or Africa — they were in Europe.

This phenomenon is nothing new, whether it’s human violence or natural disasters. In a 1986 study, George Washington University professor William C. Adams looked at the news coverage of 35 natural disasters between January 1972 and June 1985 that took at least 300 lives. He found that the severity of the disaster was not what predicted how much coverage it received from the major television networks. An earthquake that killed 4,000 people in Guatemala, for example, received a third of the coverage of an earthquake in Italy that killed around a thousand people the same year. Adams found that, as opposed to the number of deaths, what mattered was how likely US tourists were to have visited that country and the country’s proximity to the United States.

Today, many news outlets have aggressively covered terror attacks outside of Europe and profiled those who have suffered from them. However, for tragedies beyond Western borders, there is often little widespread public outcry. When those touched by tragedy remain caricatures on the opposite side of a man-made border, their lives become abstractions, and westerners might not see themselves reflected in the faces of these victims.

This is not to say that we should, or are even capable of, bringing attention to every act of violence in every corner of the world — but we should be mindful of how quickly we scroll past a story or flip to the next channel.


This selective empathy applies within our own country as much as it does with regard to foreign lands. More than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, 1 million people were without running water and 3 million people were without power. It is difficult to imagine that our federal response — or lack thereof — to Puerto Rico would be the same if the residents of that island were not brown and Spanish-speaking.

Over a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated what such indifference looked like in the context of the continental United States, where nearly 2,000 people died and thousands more were left without food, water, or medical care in the shelters the city provided. This was my home at the time, and I still remember watching men, women, and children on rooftops pleading for help from a country that felt like it was disregarding their humanity. I find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which a US city where the majority of its residents were white would be subjected to the sort of treatment and prolonged lack of assistance that either of these regions were.

The pattern of conditional empathy extends to the current watershed moment around sexual assault and harassment across the country. Through the #MeToo campaign, women, men, and gender-nonconforming people who have experienced sexual misconduct at the hands of people in positions of social and professional power have been courageously coming forward to share their stories. But there are inconsistencies here, too. While someone like Harvey Weinstein has been expelled from his industry after mostly white women came forward with stories of his harassment and abuse, many black women have pointed out that R. Kelly — who has been accused of coercing, manipulating, and preying on young black women and girls for the past 25 years — has not experienced similar widespread condemnation. In that time, he has sold an estimated 100 million records and continues to headline concerts all over the world.

So much right now feels out of our control. But what we can control is how we respond to all that we see.

This discrepancy in empathy is, in part, a question of what society sees when they look at black girls and women. Such a phenomenon is impossible to disentangle from empirical research illuminating the “adultification” of black girls, which has found that black girls are assumed to be less innocent and more adultlike than white girls as early as age 5. Young black girls are perceived as being less deserving of compassion, and it shapes how we make sense of what is or is not acceptable in their lived experiences.

In many ways, pointing out these double standards seems obvious. But that they are so conspicuous makes their existence so unsettling. This year we have been confronted with many ugly sides of ourselves — such that even turning on the news can seem like a Herculean task, It’s up to us whether or not we’ll see these disparities in empathy for what they are or continue to pretend they don’t exist.

Empathy should not be contingent on our proximity to suffering or the likelihood of it happening to us. Rather, it should stem from a disdain that suffering is happening at all. If the only people we are able to extend empathy to are those who are like us, who come from the same country we do, or who share our faith, then we misunderstand what empathy is. When this happens, we are more likely to fall into the trap of accepting certain suffering as unfortunate but acceptable, while other suffering is decidedly tragic.

So much right now feels out of our control. But what we can control is how we respond to all that we see. We can remember that each victim in Somalia and Egypt had a name and a family and people who loved them. We can remember that some were children who loved literature and poetry, some were mothers who sang lullabies to their children as they put them to bed, and some had dreams of helping build their country into something better than what it is today. We can remember that the people in Puerto Rico are US citizens, and wrestle with what it means that we even question whether they deserve help based on their citizen status. We can remember that the scars of sexual abuse can remain with victims for a lifetime, taking both a psychological and material toll. We tend to lose sight of the human element when confronted with such enormous tragedy. But it is reflecting on these details that reminds us that such lives are worthy of being mourned. Not because they were people from a particular place, but because they were people. ●

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Clint Smith is a writer and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University whose work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent.

Contact Clint Smith at cwardsmith@gmail.com.

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