‘Between the World and Me’: Empathy Is a Privilege

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.”