Equity

Arthur H. Camins on the Equity and Empathy Gap

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Arthur H. Camins, Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology,tries to figure out why our society has become desensitized to hatred and violence.

He writes that:

Inequity is the fuel that feeds the fires of the racism and bigotry that underlie most of the pervasive violence around the world and in the United States. However, let’s be clear. Divisiveness enables the privileged to attain or maintain their power.

Others lash out in hatred to vent the pent up frustrations and fears for which no friend, family member, politician or spiritual leader have provided a better channel. When the patina of democracy disintegrates in a society dominated by the few some of the disempowered become susceptible to the simplistic appeal of blame and authoritarianism.

As a nation, the United States is infected with racial and socio-economic myopia. Sadly, the malignant biases that support the empowered also undermine the ability of the disempowered to identify and empathize with one another.

He writes:

We have a profoundly endogenous equity and empathy gap. What the too frequent impunity of police in disproportionate killing of Black men and the market competition and no-excuses behavioral prescriptions for school improvement have in common, is a failure to imagine the life experience of another. It is particularly difficult for the empowered to visualize what it is like to be disempowered, especially without social pressure to do so. And, without forging common cause, even small differences in relative powerlessness lead to a failure to empathize. In the last three decades, our ability as a nation to engage in multiple-perspective taking appears to have deteriorated.

This deterioration has many parents.

First, it is the result of vast and growing structural inequality and the erosion of democracy. The rules and processes that govern day-to-day life are increasingly influenced by a tiny percentage of unfathomably wealthy individuals. They live in a rarified environment. Even when they advocate for others, it is within the context of maintaining, if not increasing, their power and influence. Their education remedies are for other people’s children. The empowered treat police brutality as if it is a problem of others’ (the victims) behavioral pathology, rather than a systemic problem to which extreme wealth and poverty contribute.

Second, hardening patterns of residential racial and economic segregation and divergent employment opportunities mean that the rest of us interact less often. We fail not just to interact across perceptions, but temporally and spatially. As a result, it is more difficult to identify common problems and easier for divisiveness to plant seeds, grow roots and thrive. In tough times, people often come to see their survival as contingent on the diminishment of others.

Finally, public schools — the one place where young people might engage in planned early experiences with perspective-taking across differences — are becoming more balkanized in the name of choice and more focused on narrowing academic outcomes in the name of better test results. In addition, the test-driven focus on reading and mathematics has diminished attention to science and social studies, the two areas of study that might engage students in discussions of controversial issues, evidence-based thinking, examination of bias in reaching conclusions, and reasoned argumentation.

He sees hope in those who stand up against injustice.

I do see a ray of light in courageous people who continue to defy negative community norms to make a moral and strategic case for common ground. I see it in relentless researchers and writers who expose the hypocrisy of the powerful who seek benefit from division. I see it in parents and teachers who push back against their schools being taken over and turned into testing factories. I see it in the diversity of citizens who demonstrate their outrage and call for unbiased justice.

We can reclaim our schools and our society if we don’t let the powerful pit us against one another.

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