I wondered how long expressions of empathy would continue to be front and center in the minds of Americans following the hate-fueled multiple murders of Asian women in and near Atlanta, Georgia.
To be clear, two of the victims of Robert Aaron Long’s homicidal mania were not of Asian ancestry. But their proximity to clearly and stereotypically identifiable Asian ethnic tropes brought them within the sights of the killer.
The fact that most people have already forgotten the names of the eight victims murdered at three Asian American spas in the Atlanta area tends to strengthen the argument that generally speaking, empathy for “the other” is fleeting.
When we fail to stay in touch with our humanity and abandon our ability to have empathy for all people, we fall into the trap of enabling those among us who use hate and fear as tools to separate us in order to serve their greed and lust for power.
At many points along the path of American history, the ugly truths of our country are shrouded in the shadows of lies, misinformation and ignorance. Sometimes these truths emerge from the shadows, and we even hear some Blacks and Asians demonize Asians. It is common knowledge that some Black folks speak disparagingly about merchants of Asian ancestry who operate businesses in Black communities. Recently, there are reports of Sery Kim, Congressional candidate of Korean ancestry from Texas and a supporter of Donald Trump, speaking publicly about people of Chinese ancestry, saying that she does not “want them here at all.” Rather than drawing gasps and condemnation from her audience, her remarks generated cheers and applause.
The modern-day “othering” of people of color in America and elsewhere is a direct result of Western imperialism and colonialism. For the sake of their stability, these socioeconomic processes required creating and maintaining the global myth of white supremacy. Europeans used white supremacy to place themselves at the top of the social hierarchy in lands they controlled. They also maneuvered the inhabitants of color into opposing each other based upon their ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
“Divide and conquer” is not merely a trite and meaningless saying. It is a political, social and economic strategy that has resulted in the successful looting of entire continents by a few relatively small countries in the western end of the Eurasian land mass. By creating separate classes of “haves” and “have nots,” European imperialists created tensions between identifiable groups that prevented them from joining forces and throwing off their oppressors.
Two very clear cases illustrate how this has been done and its disastrous effects.
In the 1980s, the world watched in horror as a conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women and children. But little thought was given to the fact that the schism between these two peoples had been exacerbated for decades in large part by the Belgian colonial administrators who ruled over the lands that were to become Rwanda and Burundi. The Belgians formalized the “othering” between the two groups by forcing Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards. To create a class division, the Belgians allowed only Tutsis to obtain a higher education or hold positions of limited economic power within the colonial structure.
The British did a similar form of “othering” in the colonial lands that were to become Sudan. By encouraging Islam in the northern part of that colony and severely restricting it in the south, a religious divide developed. Additionally, the British invested heavily in the north – considered Arab – but underdeveloped the south, which they identified more with their East African colonies. These divisions led to a tragic “othering” of the people of northern Sudan and southern Sudan that continued even after Sudan’s independence and led to its splitting into two nations.
It would take numerous volumes of history to catalog the countless instances where white supremacy pitted one group of people of color against another. But what we know now is that it must be stopped. In the biblical tradition when God asks Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In this story, Cain abandoned his empathy in order to pursue his own selfish desires.
We cannot be like Cain. We cannot abandon our empathy for our fellow human beings. We must all be our brothers’ keepers as well as out sisters’ keepers. We all face a common struggle against those who use hate and fear as tools to separate us in order to serve their greed and lust for power.
Because we are all of one earth, we are all essentially of one mother. And in our struggle against white supremacy, we must all link arms to protect and care for one another.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.