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Protests across the U.S. reveal empathy and its enemy

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In the design community, it is often asserted that the essence of good design is empathy—an ability to understand and share the feelings of another human. Protests engulfing U.S. cities this week reflect a dearth of that capacity in American society, especially when it comes to white Americans’ ability to comprehend and address the marginalization of black Americans.

Michael Ignatieff discussed the clash of empathy and racism in the New York Times last month in a review of American Poison, a new book by Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. Ignatieff describes Porter’s book, subtitled How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise, as a “learned, well-written but relentless survey of social science studies on racial polarization.” 

He also calls it a “tough read” because it shatters two fundamental illusions of white progressive liberals (of which Ignatieff counts himself one): first, that the arc of American history “bends towards justice” on matters of race, and second, that it is possible for liberals to “empathize” with both the racial pain of Americans of color and racial resentments of America’s white working class.

Ignatieff summarizes Porter’s argument thus: “Empathy…has always waged an unequal struggle against the animus that courses through American history, poisoning both those who hate and are hated. Race has contaminated American solidarity, making it impossible for poor whites, threatened by job loss, globalization and the death of carbon-intensive industries, to make cause with African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and immigrants.” 

Ignatieff ultimately judges American Poison a bracing but unduly pessimistic “jeremiad.” That was before a white policeman put his knee on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and before it became apparent that mortality rates for black Americans in the COVID-19 outbreak would exceed those for white Americans by three-to-one. Today, Porter’s pessimism is harder to dismiss.

Can design or design thinking help reverse this “unequal struggle” between empathy and animus? I won’t pretend to have the answer. But if design and empathy have anything in common, that’s a cause all designers, especially Americans, should join.

Clay Chandler
-clay.chandler@fortune.com

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