Article Lead Image

Why black lives don’t matter to grand juries

America has an empathy problem.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Dec 8, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 1:10 am CDT

As far as Christmas seasons go, this one has not started off with much good tidings or great joy.

Last Wednesday, a New York grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man from Staten Island whose life was taken in July. This outcome was shocking, obviously, but this time, the shock feels different. Because this time, that shock stemmed less from the brutality of the situation, or the actions of those in power—that’s par for the course by now. This time, what’s shocking is how a grand jury could not see the killing of Eric Garner as a problem.

Why do we let this keep happening? Why do we not only keep letting the police take black lives, but why do we let them get away with it? Everyone knows that white people have more confidence in the police than black people. But even with mostly white juries, you’d still think it would be easier to convince them that the police, occasionally, make a horrible mistake. Slate’s Josh Voorhees notes that the hard data in this regard is “widely considered incomplete by those familiar with how those numbers are counted,” yet, “even that low-end estimate suggests that police shoot and kill someone in the United States more than once a day, on average.” Meanwhile, the “overwhelming majority of those killings are deemed justified before the case ever reaches a jury.”

So as difficult as it may be to accept, blaming the grand jury is not necessarily the be all and end all of condemnation here. “There is one reason that Daniel Pantaleo [the officer who killed Garner] is not being charged in the death of Eric Garner,” asserts The New York Times Paul Butler. “It’s because District Attorney Dan Donovan of Staten Island did not want him to be…the problem stems from the culture of the prosecutor’s office, compounded by the fact that, like most lawyers, prosecutors are competitive and ambitious and the way you move ahead is to win your cases, and the way you win cases is get your star witnesses—the cops—to go the extra mile. All that makes it really tough to try to send one of them to prison.”

Butler does see a way to combat this broken system, though, proposing that “The automatic appointment of special prosecutors in criminal investigations of police is the best way to avoid district attorneys’ natural biases and make sure that justice satisfies the appearance of justice.” The Times’ Trevor Burrus echoed this sentiment, too. “As public servants, police officers should be held to a higher standard,” he writes. “Police are tasked with protecting and serving the community, and sometimes that means practicing restraint and verifying whether the alleged perpetrator actually poses a threat. This will mean that sometimes an officer’s safety will be compromised, but protecting police officers is not the only goal of law enforcement. Protecting the lives and liberties of citizens is equally important.”

But while Butler and Burrus are seemingly correct in claiming that the legal system designed to deal with these cases is broken, perhaps we should be asking why, if anyone had any intention of fixing it, haven’t they done so yet? Which in turn brings up whether those in power see the system as being broken at all, or whether they’re perfectly content with the way it works. “The American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does,” reasons Deadspin’s Albert Burneko. “America employs the enforcers of its power to beat, kill, and terrorize, deploys its judiciary to say that that’s OK, and has done this more times than anyone can hope to count. This is not a flaw in the design; this is the design.”

Let’s assume for a second that Burneko is right, and America’s existing and longheld mechanisms of power couldn’t care less about whether what they do affects black people negatively. That still leaves the problem of Americans themselves.

For white Americans, the trouble with relating to Garner is largely based on their background. Case in point: the Atlantic’s Robert P. Jones looked at data on reactions to Ferguson and found that the racial divisions therein were stark. Based on this, Jones surmised that “the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.” Jones writes, “These are not stories most whites are socially positioned to hear. Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.”

So it’s clear that, as Jones puts it, we oftentimes have trouble connecting with people of another skin color because of “self-segregation.” But are we really so divided that we have no basic empathy for our fellow countrymen? Surely, slavery and physical segregation would not have fallen the first time were it not for a few white people who found a shred of empathy in themselves.

The problem is that empathy hasn’t evolved beyond much more than a shred. In point of fact, during last year’s Trayvon Martin case, Harvard P.H.D. student Jason Silverstein, also writing for Slate, examined the “racial empathy gap” between whites and blacks. What he found was nothing short of terrifying.  

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

Keeping this in mind, it becomes impossible to let the the jurors off the hook on the Eric Garner verdict. Think this lack of empathy stops at the courtroom? Silverstein also cited a 2002 study, in which a controlled group of students acting as jurors “gave black defendants harsher sentences (4.17 years) than whites (3.04 years)—even in the high-empathy condition (3.26 years versus 2.20 years, respectively)—and felt less empathy for black defendants.”

This lack of empathy is deep, and it is insidious. Reports indicate that we don’t even perceive the physical pain of black people as severe as the pain of whites. Maybe that’s why we continue to assume that black men possess almost superhuman strength, and why we have no problem trying black children as adults. It would certainly explain why Darren Wilson saw Michael Brown as a “demon.”

Speaking of children, studies show that a cultural focus on the idea of self starts to instill these perceptions from a young age. Growing up, we’re inadvertently taught that the kind of widespread racism which lets people like Daniel Pantaleo walk free is basically the price of putting oneself first, a practice which has become commonplace in America.

Impossible as it seems, we live in a world where the Eric Garner jury thought his killers were doing the right thing, or “just doing their job.” Where did they come from that they didn’t see this as an outrage? What was going through their heads when they decided that the perpetrators of this crime should walk free? It feels almost as if the jury had been brainwashed to believe that anyone with a badge is automatically incapable of being a criminal themselves. Or that somehow being part of a community whose job is literally to save lives gives them carte blanche to disregard the very job they were sworn to do.

And that’s because they were brainwashed, in a way. The jury just saw the killing or Eric Garner as a natural extension of the police “looking out for number one.” Because hey, isn’t that what we’re all supposed to do? Despite the casual, everyday evidence to the contrary, racism is actually over in America, right? so why spend our own precious time worrying about it?

There’s not even a remote question as to what happened to Eric Garner on the day he died. No conflicting reports, no confusing evidence, no ambiguity whatsoever. The coroner in the case ruled it a homicide, and the murder itself happened on video. And make no mistake, it was murder. What else do you call it when an unarmed man is slain for merely stating that he’s tired of being harassed? Sadly, Garner’s death demonstrated unequivocally that he was right to call the police into question, because their actions were the literal embodiment of his fears in that moment.

The police didn’t even have a good reason to be questioning Garner in the first place; they were worried he was illegally selling cigarettes. Surely, somewhere in New York at that very moment, there were people committing real crimes. But instead of doing actual police work, these officers thought it was more important to let a large black man know that he was committing the crime of being large and black. And when Garner let them know he thought that was unfair, they reacted by putting him into an illegal chokehold and murdering him. His last words were not the cry of a vicious criminal, but of a helpless victim, who died pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

To suggest that it was the cops, not Garner, who had any reason to be scared in this situation is offensive. And to suggest that what the cops did was anything other than murder, than the taking of an innocent life, is factually incorrect.

Nonetheless, Eric Garner’s death does affect all of us. Black America and white America, cops and criminals, and everyone else caught in the crossfire. Burrus claims that “protecting the lives and liberties of citizens is equally important” as protecting the police. But maybe it’s time we start seeing it as more important. Police do indeed deserve our boundless respect and commendation for putting their lives on the line every time they go to work in the morning. But that is what they signed up for. That is not what you sign up for just by being born black.

This unhidden disparity is the reason anyone left in this country with a shred of empathy was struck speechless on Wednesday. Because what we persist in viewing as “race issues” are really “everybody issues.” Because we’ve forgotten how to relate to each other on a human level. Because we can’t seem to remember that black lives matter as much as everyone else’s lives. Because we’re all complicit in this. Because somewhere, deep down in the soul of America, there is a thing that is twisted and grotesque, which doesn’t allow us to see past our own noses.  

We must cut that thing out, before we lose America’s soul entirely.

Photo via Coco Curranski/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Dec 8, 2014, 12:00 pm CST