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ISU Discussion Focuses On Empathy And The Long History Of Black Trauma

Byron Craig
Dr. Byron Craig, an assistant professor in the Illinois State University's School of Communication.

As violent images of the recent deaths of black citizens proliferate the media, some scholars and activists sense an opportunity to pursue lasting change.

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks have spurred a moment of historical reckoning. And in the wake of massive civil unrest, many are hopeful this country may finally be ready to confront its past. 

On Saturday evening, Illinois State University’s Department of Psychology and School of Communication hosted a live stream event titled, “What Should Empathy be in this Moment of Historical Reckoning: Reconciling Black Trauma, Whiteness, and the Historical Structure of Racism Since 1619.” The event was part of the ongoing Extending Empathy Project initiated by the ISU Department of Psychology in 2018. 

Led by Byron Craig, an assistant professor in the ISU School of Communication, and Stephen Rahko, a lecturer in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, the discussion centered around an exploration of empathy in the current historical moment. In the wake of the deaths of Floyd and others, Craig and Rahko believe that “a renewed discourse of social justice around the historic structures of systemic racism has started to blossom.” Empathy, they say, has a crucial role to play.

Lasting just under two hours, the discussion is probably best exemplified by an unpacking of the concept of black trauma.

Craig described black trauma as the lived experience of black people in the “larger ambience of anti-blackness.” Everything from the exclusionary practice of redlining, which segregated American cities, to the story of Arbery, who was killed for jogging through a white neighborhood, contributes to a collective trauma that underwrites the black experience.

For black people, said Craig, “We know that there are certain cultural scripts we must play in white spaces in order to maintain our sanity or to survive because we live in a culture that memorializes the history of violence against us.”

Craig highlighted the recent killing of Brooks in Atlanta as an example of how black trauma can inform certain reactions in white spaces.

Brooks was questioned by two white police officers after he was found sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru. After what appeared on surveillance video to be a calm and respectful interaction between Brooks and the officers, the situation devolved into a scuffle. As the officers moved to arrest him, Brooks hit one officer, grabbed the other’s Taser, and fired it. Then he fled, firing the taser once more behind him as he ran. Officer Garrett Rolfe responded by shooting Brooks twice in the back, killing him.

Why didn’t Brooks just comply? By grabbing the taser and running, didn’t he essentially cause his own death?

It’s precisely these kind of questions that constitute what Craig and Rahko call commonplaces of anti-blackness: the standard arguments that underlie structural racism. One such argument, frequently invoked, is that black people fail to act in their own self-interest, thereby creating their own misfortune.

The role of empathy in the case of Brooks, says Craig, involves not only attempting to understand what Brooks may have been feeling in the moment he ran, but also understanding how the reality of collective black trauma informed that decision.

After all, Floyd was killed in Minneapolis less than two weeks before, on May 31. His brutal death beneath the knee of a police officer played out nonstop on screens across the world. But the history of black Americans suffering violence at the hands of whites stretches back hundreds of years before that.

To develop empathy around the experience of Brooks, said Craig, means to realize that in the face of arrest, “There was something that caused him to panic. Something historical.”

Craig went on to share experiences of his own trauma, including jogging late one evening and being harassed by a white passerby. All black people have stories like these, he said. And so do their parents, their grandparents, their great grandparents. On and on, as far back as memory will travel. Black trauma is generational, said Craig, and until we can stop denying the unequal treatment of black people in today’s America, that trauma will persist.

True empathy means working to understand the experience of being black in America—and admitting that the reality black people are expected to endure is one that white people would never accept for themselves.

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