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Racial Pain and the Empathy We Need from Public Officials

They must feel for themselves — and act on — the suppressed anger and heartache that the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police have brought to the surface.

Young people participate in a Black Lives Matter children's march in Hartford, Conn.(Brad Horrigan | bhorrig)
It is time we stop the pablum and false equivocation regarding where we are in this country and what the real challenges are for governing it. The pandemic and the recent deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police have forced millions of Americans to begin coming to terms with a deep and ugly truth: Since Black people were first brought to this country and enslaved, there has never been a sustained period when they have not been humiliated and made to feel less than human.

Much of this dehumanizing, systematizing and institutionalizing of racism was done by or under the watchful eyes of public officials. Today's government leaders can't fix the sins of their forefathers, but they must have greater empathy with the deep pain and raw emotions that are boiling over in our towns and cities today.

As an African American with a long and varied career, I know from experience that no matter what heights I've reached, I have always been made to feel that I was not quite good enough. In an ironic twist on that experience, I was told I was too qualified to become a technical college president, but then once in place was made to feel like an interloper in a system where students of color were in the majority. My wife worked in a liberal independent school for over a quarter of a century with colleagues she refers to as "good white people," but she was allowed to shine only within clearly confined limits.

Our stories are of high-achieving Black Americans, but they are the same no matter to whom we talk up or down the Black class spectrum. Our emotions have been buried, suppressed and filed away, but always have remained in our psyches. The merciless killings of Black bodies have brought that pain and sense of loss to the surface. And now that families are sheltering in place, spending more time talking, crying and attending to the emotional health of one another with varying degrees of success, all the buried stuff is flowing out like crude oil.

I would not be honest if I did not share that I am worried about the younger generation, including my 29-year-old daughter, who has lived a life that escaped my wife and me as we grew up poor. My daughter attended the best private schools. She graduated with a degree in neuroscience from Wellesley College and works as a clinical researcher at Emory University. She has her own condo and has maintained frequent contact with her white friends from high school and college.

I have watched how the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, most recently a couple miles from where my daughter lives, Rayshard Brooks have affected her. She is angry, hurt and grieving like I never saw before. She feels that "life" for Black Americans is off the table, that the only option for African Americans is "how we die," and that white people control the outcome and narrative.

She fights to hold back tears, and it deeply hurts me to see her in this state, but I identify with every fear, anxiety and emotion she's feeling. I am moved to try to give her some historical perspective, so I remind her that our ancestors were free people brought here in chains and that they and their descendants were forced at gunpoint to work for free for hundreds of years. Then we fought for our emancipation, along with some good white people. Since then we have lived at the margins and experienced domestic terrorism at its worst. But we survived. We are here. And though society and its racist systems have had their knees on our necks, we still rise.

She listened carefully. Her tears rolled back into the wells of her eyes. For the moment she felt better, perhaps a small bit more hopeful. But that hopefulness probably cannot survive another killing of an unarmed Black man or the sight of a police union leader trying to justify the excessive use of force by a rogue cop.

Public officials will continue to have their hands full trying to restart their economies and dealing with massive unemployment. But now they also must reckon with multiracial daily protests demanding not only a new way to police communities but a fairer and more open government and society. What they will need to understand, or at least show empathy for, is the deep-seated pain, anger and heartache felt by an overwhelming majority of their Black and Brown constituents.

Empathy is the first step, but it must be followed up with specific policy and legislative changes, including removing Confederate monuments that were erected as symbols of defiance; adopting the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing; investing in affordable housing; using job-training funds more effectively to provide high-demand work skills for the underserved; and reinvesting public safety funding into psychological and sociological services that support safety and health.

The time is ripe for bold and innovative changes that speak not only to our heads and pocketbooks but, moreover, to our hearts and souls.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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