Amid two crises – the pandemic and the national reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd – there have been anguished calls for Americans to come together across lines of race and partisanship. Change would come, a USA Today contributor wrote, only “when we become sensitized to the distress of our neighbors.”
Empathy born of intimacy was the prepandemic solution to the nation’s fractured political landscape. If Americans could simply get to know one another, to share stories and appreciate each other’s struggles, civic leaders argued, we would develop a sense of understanding and empathy that would extend beyond the single encounter.
Science bears out the idea that intimacy can make people more understanding of others.
A venerable tradition of social psychological research shows that people who interact with members of a stigmatized group may change their opinion of the whole group. The original research by Gordon Allport suggested that contact between members of different groups worked by giving people knowledge of the other group. But later studies found instead that it increased their empathy and willingness to take the other’s perspective.
That’s why a growing industry of professional facilitators champion carefully structured conversations as key to solving workplace conflicts, community development disputes, Americans’ political disengagement and racial division.
As partisan political divides became vitriolic, civic leaders brought ordinary people together to talk. You could join people from the left and right at a Make America Dinner Again event or a Better Angels workshop, where “you can actually become friends and colleagues with people you don’t agree with.”
Joan Blades, who created the online political advocacy group MoveOn.Org in 1997, seemed to have her finger on the pulse again when she launched Living Room Conversations in 2011. Small groups would host conversations across partisan lines.
“By the time you get to the topic you’ve chosen to discuss, you’re thinking, ‘I like this person or these people,’” Blades promised.
By the end of the 2010s, these were the terms for building unity: personal conversations in intimate settings that would produce friendship across gulfs of difference.
Commonalities and differences
The pandemic made the idea of living room conversations with anyone outside one’s household sadly unrealistic. But it may not have been the solution people were looking for in the first place.
Initiatives that bring together members of different groups, researchers have shown, are less effective in reducing prejudice when the groups participating are unequal in power and status – say, Black Americans and white ones.
Dominant group members tend to insist on talking about their commonalities with members of the disadvantaged group. That’s frustrating for the latter, who more often want to talk about their differences and, indeed, their inequalities.
Taking the perspective of someone different, moreover, works to diminish the prejudices of members of dominant groups but not those of members of disadvantaged groups. Research also shows that when people are asked to take the perspective of a person who fits a stereotype, they negatively stereotype that person even more than if they had not been asked to do so. Asking a Democrat to put herself in the shoes of a MAGA hat-wearing Republican, in other words, may backfire.
Nor does empathy always overcome political beliefs.
A recent study from the University of Houston found that people who are naturally empathetic are more likely to feel anger toward those in the opposite party and feel pleasure when they suffer. Empathy tends to be biased toward one’s own group, so it may fuel political polarization rather than counter it.
Naturally empathetic people are also more likely to suppress their feelings of compassion when those feelings conflict with their ideological views, becoming less compassionate as a result. In one study, subjects who had individualistic beliefs opposed government welfare programs even after reading a story about a man in financial need, but individualists who were naturally empathetic opposed welfare even more strongly after reading the story.
Friendship isn’t necessary
Since dialogue initiatives are voluntary, they probably attract people who are already predisposed to wanting to find connection across difference. And no one has figured out how a friendly meeting between Democratic and Republican voters, or even a hundred such meetings, can have a discernible effect on political polarization that is national in scope.
Certainly, participants who change their minds may share their new opinions with others in their circle, creating a ripple effect of goodwill. But dialogue initiatives may also crowd out ways of tackling political divisions that are likely to have wider impact.
Americans committed to living in a functioning democracy could demand that national political representatives, not ordinary citizens, sit down together to find common ground across difference. Or they could work to bring back some version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy once endorsed both by both the conservative National Rifle Association and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, that required television channels to air diverse points of view. Or people could rally to demand that Congress pass legislation like gun control that overwhelming majorities of Americans across the political spectrum want – working across party lines to win policy, not become friends.
Treating friendship as a prerequisite to cooperation also misses the fact that people have long worked together for the common good on the basis of relationships that do not resemble the intimacy of friends.
The protests after George Floyd’s death, for example, introduced many white Americans to the idea of allyship. Allies – whether white anti-racists and/or straight people or men – commit to listening more than talking and to taking direction from people without the privilege they enjoy. Allies don’t require intimate connection as the price for their involvement. They recognize that intimacy has often served to keep relationships unequal, and that is exactly what they want to change.
It is not just movement activists who expose the limits of intimacy for building unity. Black participants in the interracial dialogues political scientist Katherine Cramer studied were frustrated when they described what it was like to be discriminated against and white participants responded with their own stories about how they had never treated their Black friends any differently than their white ones.
But when participants ignored their facilitator’s plea to “dialogue, not debate,” and challenged each other on the evidence for their claims, the white participants, in particular, were stopped from sliding by with bromides about how “under the skin, we’re all the same.” It was the confrontational exchanges that led participants to recognize their real differences while still building a relationship.
Vote suppression, vote manipulation, disenfranchisement, faulty voting machines — these and others are serious problems that threaten to undermine the electoral process in the United States.
While some legislators are attempting to crack down on alleged voter fraud by proposing stringent ID requirements, other lawmakers and grassroots citizen organizations are focusing their attention on the much greater problem of election fraud (intentional efforts to suppress or manipulate the vote) and irregularities (potentially hackable or malfunctioning electronic voting machines), as well as related problems like poorly trained poll workers and insufficient numbers of machines, paper ballots and provisional ballots at polling places.
One of the problems “clean vote” advocates have is convincing the public that the voting process can indeed be dirty. After all, there’s not a lot of distance between talk about election fraud and the latest conspiracy theory. Plus, we want to believe that ours is a pristine process — that every vote counts and that every vote is counted. The sad truth is that many votes go uncounted, and some votes are counted twice or more by electronic machines.
Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of these problems usually exists in poor and urban areas, the glaring exception being Florida’s ballot fiasco back in 2000. And one of the results of these problems is that we feel powerless to correct them, no matter where we live. How can we have faith in electronic machines when the precincts that buy them admit they don’t trust them to accurately count our votes? How can we fight back when we’re turned away at the polls because our photo ID doesn’t include the middle initial that appears on our voter registration, even though the rest of the information on the two documents is consistent? We can quickly get overwhelmed by both the big picture and the exact details.
The reality — and here’s the good news — is that we can each take steps to help ensure that our vote is counted. There’s no guarantee that it will be, but the more attention we pay to some of those details before and on Election Day, the greater the chances that our vote will be registered.
Here’s a checklist of action steps you can take now:
• Double-check now to make sure you are registered to vote. If you discover a problem that you cannot resolve with your local elections board (usually listed in the government pages of the local telephone directory), contact Election Protection at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) for help.
• Find out now where your polling place is. It may have changed since the last time you voted.
• Find out exactly what forms of ID your state requires, and make sure everything is in order before Election Day. If you can, go to the appropriate website (usually the county’s board of elections or your state’s secretary of state), research the voter ID law and print the page to take with you on Election Day. Poll workers too often don’t know the law.
• Obtain a sample ballot. Some counties and precincts post sample ballots online. Call your local elections board to have one sent to you if you can’t get it online. As recent elections have shown, ballots can be confusing, and you don’t want to be caught off guard at the polls. Bear in mind, though, that not all jurisdictions provide sample ballots.
Here’s what you can do on Election Day (or earlier, if your state allows early voting):
• Request a paper ballot if one is available. Electronic machines are much too unreliable. Be sure you are not given a provisional ballot; these are used when a person’s voting status is in question, and they often go uncounted. If an electronic machine is your only option, check to see if you can obtain a paper copy of your vote. Some machines allow you to verify your vote on paper before you submit it electronically.
• Be vigilant. If anything strikes you as questionable, bring it to the attention of a poll worker — which may not do any good if the poll workers are part of the problem. (One example: In several New York City precincts in 2006, minority voters were asked for photo ID, which was not a requirement, while no such request was made of white voters.)
• Report any problems, even if they appear to be minor, to your local board of elections as soon as possible; if you have a cell phone, call from the polling place. You can also report it to Election Protection at the number given above and to any of the citizen organizations listed at the end of this article. If it’s serious enough and you haven’t received a satisfactory response from the election board, don’t hesitate to call your local media to notify them of the problem.
In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it.
Mental Health in the Prison System
One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”
PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”
She worries about him.
“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”
In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”
Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”
She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.
Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.
“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”
PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”
PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”
Life After Release
Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.
They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.
PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.
“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.
Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”
And, she knows it could get harder.
“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”
Church as a Resource
Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?
When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.
As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.
“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”
As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.
More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.
Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.
March, in many ways, has become the month of women. Each year, the month is set aside to pay homage to women who have been world changers throughout history and acknowledge the impact of women on present-day society.
Within Women’s History Month is International Women’s Day, a yearly campaign that encourages solidarity on issues related to women and girls. This year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange: “a call on the masses to help forge a better working world—a more gender-inclusive world,” according to the International Women’s Day website. In the spirit of this year’s theme, women and men across the United States are encouraged to #BeBoldForChange by staying home from work.
On the heels of the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, women, men, and children came out by the millions to protest a man who has been criticized for being misogynistic, sexist, and hostile toward women and immigrants during the Women’s March in January. On February 16, a nationwide Day Without Immigrants was organized to stand in solidarity with those who are often mischaracterized as criminals, “illegals,” and over-consumers of the United States’ economic resources. This year’s “A Day Without A Woman” protest intentionally overlaps with the global International Women’s Strike and International Women’s Day during Women’s History Month.
“A Day Without A Woman” protest is a one-day international strike from paid and unpaid work and a one-day freeze on spending at non-women or minority owned businesses. Women make up nearly half of the United States’ workforce but continue to earn less than their male counterparts. The goal of the strike is “to highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the U.S. and global economies, while calling attention to the economic injustices women and gender nonconforming people continue to face.” Women and men were encouraged to wear red as a symbol of “revolutionary love and sacrifice” and participate in any way that they can.
“I have taken the day off from my 8-to-5 office career but I am also a business owner,” said Ronisha Sanders, who participated in the strike. “I have orders to fulfill and brides to meet for cake tastings as well as speaking to a young group of ladies about what it means to be a black female business owner. That is all today! I am also wearing my red in solidarity.”
“I will be participating by not buying anything and wearing red,” said Alanah Dillard, a youth and family therapist. “I am not able to stay home from work today, but I will be having a staff meeting and spending time addressing the importance of recognizing this month and this day.”
Like Dillard, all women and men across the country are not able to take off from work to show their support. Organizers have recognized that some workers do not have the option of refraining from work for a day, particularly those with jobs that “provide essential services” like the medical field, as well as women and men who face “economic insecurity” and literally cannot afford to lose a day of pay.
A Day Without A Woman is a testament to the major contributions of women in paid, unpaid, and unnoticed labor capacities. According to the Center for American Progress projections, a total of $21 billion (in GDP) could be lost if all women took off work for one day. Although the idea of all working women in the country staying home from work is improbable, the potential impact of the strike is not only economic.
“I work in a predominantly woman-dominated profession [mental health counseling and social services] so to have women not show up to work would make a huge difference,” Dillard said.
Education—a field typically dominated by women—has already been affected. Some public school systems such as Prince George’s County, Maryland, have closed after hundreds of teachers and school staff members requested the day off.
As young professional women, both Dillard and Sanders acknowledge the importance of A Day Without A Woman through the perspective of their livelihoods.
As a resident manager for the YMCA, Dillard works closely with young adults and has noticed the need to continue to empower women and fight for female equality and respect.
“I was told by two African American male residents, ‘I don’t have to respect you. You are a woman and you can’t get me a job unless you are a white male, so I don’t have to do anything for you.’ This is why these strikes are important. In this day, these comments are made with no hesitation—and by kids born in the 2000s.”
For Sanders, the strike and call to support women and minority businesses strike a personal chord.
“For me, this strike is a solidified push against Mr. Trump, [and a call] to be bold in pushing for change when it comes to women inequality. As a young, minority, female business owner, I pray and hope that other women know their worth and that their purpose collided with destiny,” she said. “I hope we women never question who we are. The sky is the limit. I hope that supporting women-owned business continues even after this International Women’s Day.”
(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.