Between the World and Me: Empathy Is a Privilege

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

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

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.

Of course, a central claim of Obama’s original campaign for president was that politicians had proven themselves incapable of finding common ground, creating a legislative impasse in Washington that covered a whole host of issues, not the least of which those involving race. In an address at Ebenezer Baptist Church in January of 2008, Obama returned to a central theme of The Audacity of Hope, an “empathy deficit” that he believed was warping U.S. politics. Speaking from what was once Martin Luther King’s pulpit, the candidate lamented America’s “inability to recognize ourselves in one another,” a condition that fuels destructive trends—failing inner city schools, racial bias in criminal-justice proceedings, the scourge of predatory lending—that disproportionately afflict minority communities. These “profound institutional barriers” needed to be torn down, Obama said. However, good policy had to be preceded by “a change in attitudes—a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts” consistent with overcoming, as a people, an “empathy deficit.”

Writing midway through Obama’s second term, Coates offers a very different perspective on the potential for empathy to heal racial divisions. Recalling an appearance on a Sunday morning talk show where he was invited to discuss criminal-justice reform, Coates opens the book by affirming the chasm in lived experience between white and black Americans. “A satellite closed the miles between us,” he says of the white woman who was interviewing him, “but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak.”

If the abyss between these two worlds is unbridgeable, then that may be explained by how Coates interprets the phenomenon of racial discrimination. “[R]acism is a visceral experience,” he writes, one that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” While Coates himself has largely escaped such violence, the world he describes for his readers is structured by it. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world,” he says, “before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Importantly, for Coates, it is not the experience of brutality so much as its palpable immediacy that informs “the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.” As he says to his son Samori, to whom the book is addressed and for whom its lessons are a warning, “When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, dangerously afraid.”

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.

Obama is aware of this fact, and he realizes that it distances his experience from that of the other young black men he meets on the basketball courts in Hawaii. Listening to their anger at the racism of a world organized and policed by “the white man’s rules,” he glimpses what he calls a “nightmare vision” in which the only affirmative choice a young black man could make was “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

Whatever the merits of this conclusion, it is drawn by someone who recognizes that he is free to choose a different destiny. That freedom is not a matter of educational opportunities or socioeconomic position so much as the possibilities of a peculiar psychology. Obama, whether because of the exigencies of experience or constitutional caprice, never feels hemmed in by the same sense of anger he sees in his friends. He can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes, but he can always step back again and gain a different perspective.

By contrast, the experience of being confined, even trapped, by fear is central to Coates’s account. Violence—whether at the hands of crooked cops, lethal gang members, or even his own father—lurks around every corner, leaving him no choice but to spend the same years Obama spent on the basketball court in recreation and reflection contending with “the sheer terror of disembodiment.” Such an experience leads Coates to favor physics over metaphysics in making sense of the world around him. “My understanding of the universe was physical,” he writes, “and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.”

This is a macabre revision of Dr. King’s famous maxim, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” a quote that President Obama holds in such high esteem he had it embroidered in the rug that greets visitors to the Oval Office. Such optimism may rest on a belief in the ultimate purpose of some divine arbiter—a possibility Coates, an atheist, dismisses—but it can also rely on a worldly faith in empathy. By the power of the moral imagination, individually and as a people, we can slip the bonds of personal grievance and parochial consideration to achieve a kind of secular transcendence.

Obama hints at this possibility in The Audacity of Hope. “To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen,” he says, “to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want while looking squarely at America as it is, to acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.” And yet, achieving this perspective requires the kind of detachment that few of us come by naturally and which the crucible of Coates’s account, the trauma of fearfulness, inevitably sabotages.

And herein lies a great irony about empathy and a lesson that Obama embodies. It may seem strange that a man who maintains a Spock-like dispassion could also be a conduit for empathic understanding, but rather than being qualities at odds with each other, they are actually conjunctive. A capacity for empathy relies not only on a willingness to step into the shoes of another person, but the ability to step away from yourself. If you can’t leave your own world behind, at best, you may have the resolution but not the wherewithal.

This is a price, though no means the only one, of Coates’s experience. To be haunted —and how else to describe a life hemmed in by fear—is to be viscerally present, at every moment, to the darkest possibilities. Sustained terror, like the trauma that is its legacy, is a prison far more cruel and complete than anything involving padlock and bars. It prevents the imaginative escape of empathy by making the flesh unforgettable; it snuffs out any good reason for hopefulness. “Learn to play defense,” Coates says of the juvenile injunction he accepted, “ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body.”

The current debate over criminal-justice reform and the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement are helping to determine whether this advice remains vital, whether a young black man, like Coates’s own son, may safely prefer a “softness” of spirit—a word Coates uses movingly and always with regret—to the bitter wisdom of a hardened heart. Many years before him, Obama weighed this possibility. As he recounts in Dreams of My Father, while working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, an unforgiving world reminiscent of the one Coates describes, he confronted a carload of young men whose loud music had driven him out of his apartment in the early morning hours. As he tried “to pierce the darkness” inside their car, he considers the parallels between their lives and his. There is one essential difference. “These boys have no margin for error,” he says:

if they carry guns, those guns will offer them no protection from that truth. And it is that truth, a truth that they surely sense but can’t admit and, in fact, must refuse if they are to wake up tomorrow, that has forced them, or others like them, eventually to shut off access to any empathy they may once have have felt.

It is a bleak epiphany but certain nonetheless. Empathy is a privilege, just like freedom from despair.