critical race theory: empathy and narrative

My son got his driver’s license this fall. For a year leading up to that day my son and I spent hours together driving the roads of southwest Missouri. I loved having my son as a captive audience during those drives. We’d talk about sports, school, girls, and God. I’d also coach him on his driving. We talked about when to dim your brights and how to not dodge possums when they dart across the road. We practiced navigating round-a-bouts. We practiced parking. We practiced driving in the rain and on the highway. One thing we never practiced was how to get pulled over by a cop. I never thought about this until I heard one of my friends describing his experience as a young black man learning how to drive. In his experience, learning how to properly interact with a cop who had pulled you over was a matter of life and death. For me, it wasn’t even a consideration. It was clear that my friend had experience with the police that I never had. Understanding my friend (and also understanding a little more about myself) required that I humble myself enough to listen to his experience.

In my last several posts, I’ve been engaging the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. I wanted to more accurately understand critical race theory. I also wanted to offer an evaluation and critique of CRT in light of the gospel. The third chapter of the book is titled “Legal Storytelling and Narrative Analysis.” While I still have some reservations which I’ll express below, I found much to agree with in this chapter.

The big idea of the chapter is that people of different races have different experiences. The different experiences of marginalized people are often stories of neglect, injustice, and abuse. These experiences are too often muted or misunderstood especially in the legal system. Our inability or unwillingness to listen to the experiences of these groups results in a general lack of empathy. CRT theory counters with storytelling. Repeating the stories (or often, the names) of those who have experienced injustice at the hands of the system. The authors argue, “One premise of legal storytellers is that members of this country’s dominant racial group cannot easily grasp what it is like to be nonwhite.” Sometimes these stories are met with resistance or maybe even violence, but empathy and change require that we keep shining a light on these uncomfortable stories.

There’s really nothing in the previous paragraph that I would disagree with. It is common, gospel sense that love requires us to listen. We weep when others weep. We rejoice when others rejoice. Kingdom people are quick to listen and slow to speak. Kingdom people are empathetic people.

My question for CRT storytellers is whether or not they have wrestled with the relationship between narrative and truth. The authors refer us to postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in the chapter. Lyotard was dubious about the existence of grand narratives or stories meant to explain what is True to life. Our words don’t refer to anything beyond our own experience. Therefore, meaning and truth is relative to each person or to each group. So we can’t talk about Justice. We can only talk about justice as defined or experienced by different groups. There are at least two, related problems here that we must be mindful of before embracing the assumptions of CRT.

The anecdote becomes the truth.

An important purpose of an anecdote is to challenge prevailing assumptions and conventional wisdom. They remind us that truth is not so uniform as we imagine. At the same time, we should be careful that the anecdote doesn’t become a new convention. I’ll give an example that doesn’t have anything to do with race. My wife is a nurse. She wears a surgical mask all day long while at work. When she is not at work, she continues to wear a mask consistently. Whether she is at the store, church, or a restaurant, she is masked up (and she actually knows how to wear one). Nevertheless, she caught COVID. What does this prove? Well, it challenges what has become conventional wisdom for many that getting COVID is the result of not wearing masks. It tempers those confident claims with a countervailing story. What my wife’s story does not prove, however, is that masks are useless for everyone. Her personal experience isn’t universal. It’s just the experience of one person. We should be cautious about turning the anecdote into a new convention.

The same is true about personal experiences involving race. Stories involving unjust treatment because of race serve an important function. We need to hear them and understand them and respond to them. They challenge easy conventions. Stories of black men harassed and abused by the police challenges the convention that there isn’t any real bias in policing. However, we should be cautious about turning these stories into new conventions. One of the most common slogans that you can observe in many of the marches and protests since the spring is ACAB. Along with the letters BLM, it is maybe the most common slogan that you see. It is an acronym that stands for All Cops Are Bastards. It is evidence that the anecdote has, at least for many, become the new narrative.* According to these people, all relationships between police and people of color are characterized by abuse and maltreatment. The actual data does not matter. The stories of police officers don’t matter.** The truth is decided by the narrative. Challenging the new narrative is seen by some as racist. For instance, many people just assume that Michael Brown was an innocent victim of police brutality. To challenge that narrative with facts from the case can be a perilous thing even though the facts are easily found online. The anecdote – even when it is not true – has become the narrative. One of the toxic effects of this is that it can lead to people like Jussie Smollett trying to cynically capitalize on the narrative for personal gain. Replacing truth with anecdotes is corrosive to the truth, and it ultimately hurts those whose personal stories and experiences need to be heard. Think about it. Are people more or less likely to be heard when they talk about the racial abuse they have suffered because of Jussie Smollett? This leads to the next point…

Empathy becomes impossible.

Empathy is only possible when there is shared ground and mutual concern. The postmodern rejection of any truth that exists beyond our experience turns every man into an island. Mutual understanding is impossible. Attempts at mutual understanding may even be insulting. “How dare you claim to understand me?! You don’t know anything about my experience!” I get asked by students all the time what I think comes after postmodernity. I’ve been giving the same answer for years. What comes after postmodernity is tribal warfare. Stripped of any unifying interests, identity, or truth, we revert back to our tribal instincts. We gravitate towards those who look like us or share our microculture. Reconciliation and collaboration with other tribes is impossible. You aren’t looking to make converts when you are tribal. You are looking for conquest. The tribe that yells the most or fights the most or intimidates the most, wins. Have you noticed that woke activists don’t look for friends? They look for allies. Because you don’t need friends in a fight. You need allies. We don’t have to wonder what comes after postmodernity. Just turn on the news. We are already there.

This is one of the reasons why gospel people must continue to publicly and privately engage with the difficult issue of race. We must tell stories and listen to stories. We must have our hearts broken to the point of repentance or righteous anger. The gospel brings a unique message of reconciliation and compassion that is all too often missing from contemporary conversations about race. The gospel brings a message of common humanity rather than the “common enemy” message of so many activists. It is alongside of the gospel story that our individual stories can become stories of grace.

*I recognize that many disavow association with this acronym as they do with the violence of many of these protests. I just wish they were louder about it.

**I was chastised by a Christian brother on Facebook for simply making the suggestion that listening to the stories of police officers would be a good and helpful thing to do. It was explained to me that because they were the oppressors, they didn’t need to be heard. I’m sure this isn’t a mainstream position, but it was still jarring to hear it.

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