Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Empathy, Not Judgement: Are We Our Brother's Keeper?

The religious principle I've always had the most trouble with is "Judge ye not". I am a pretty judgey person by nature. Whenever I'm reading the news, or observing my fellow citizens in traffic, ("Thanks for nearly running us over, jerk!") my gut reaction is "How can people be so completely selfish/intolerant/cruel? What kind of decent person does that?"

I've been reflecting on my judginess as I'm reading this month's African American Lit discussion book.

Imagine your son is a freshman at an exclusive liberal arts college. Late one night, a scholarship student from Newark gets in a loud argument in the dorm with several guys from his old neighborhood. Angry that your son and other students are watching, the Newark kid yells at them to leave, and when you son refuses, threatens him, then pick him up and hurls him headfirst against the floor, breaking his leg. It transpires that the scholarship student had been jailed the previous summer for the attempted murder of a crack dealer he had stabbed. You are asked if you want to press charges, and send the assailant to jail.

Is there any question how most of us would react?  All your son did was stand up to intimidation: he didn't call the guy names, or threaten him or use violence, and yet this thug with a violent criminal record, this ANIMAL dared to lay hands on your child in his own dorm. Of course you would press charges.

And if you had, you would have ended the life and career of Dr Rameck Hunt, currently an internist at Princeton's University Medical Center  and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Dr. Hunt is the co-author, along with his friends Dr. Sampson Davis and Dr. George Jenkins of The Pact, the story of 3 young black men from the Newark projects who supported each other in their dreams to become successful doctors.

Unlike many stories of poor but saintly children triumphing over the odds, this one doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties. Looking back, Dr. Hunt explains (but does not excuse) his behavior: "On the streets where I grew up if someone disrespected you, you beat his ass. Period. If I did nothing I'd look like a punk". 

How many times have we read about violent young people and thought "Punk". "Lowlife". "Thug". After all, how could decent people do that?

In fact, Dr. Hunt says that the weight of being judged by his white middle class dorm-mates was what had enraged him: "To the average white stranger I was an instant security threat a thug, not a human being with a heart and dreams and family and fears. We were a spectacle confirming white folks worst stereotypes".

President Obama speaks with black youth about the "My Brothers' Keeper" initiative
Fortunately for Dr. Hunt, (and for all of us) the mother of that student chose empathy and compassion over judgement, and declined to press charges, and her decision changed his life. We'll be talking about Drs. Hunt, Davis and Jenkins next Tuesday, and the many decisions large and small which led to their current success. And we'll ask: how are we, as a society, treating the Ramecks of today? Are we offering empathy and encouragement, or are we squelching them with 3 strikes laws and zero tolerance policies?

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