Recent race-related events have exposed a tragic gap between our national self-image – a “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all persons are created equal,”1 – and our country’s long history of deep-seated racism. Since February, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 117,000 in the United States.2 A disproportionate number of hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among African Americans, who are dying from the disease at three times the rate of white people.3 During this same period, several unarmed Blacks have been killed by white police officers or vigilantes. On March 13, Louisville police fatally shot Breonna Taylor as she was sleeping in her home. On May 7, two white men in Brunswick, Georgia were charged with the February murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger whom they pursued and shot. And on May 25, for nearly nine agonizing minutes, a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd, who begged for his life, struggling to breathe, until he died.
A Role for Compassion?
Following George Floyd’s death, protests erupted in more than 700 communities across the United States, and around the world, to demand justice and systemic change. His death, and those of Taylor, Arbery, and many others, reveal the deadly persistence of individual and structural racism in America. As Senator Cory Booker recently noted, “We have grown too comfortable with savage injustices.”4
Social justice and health equity are central goals and core values in the field of global health. These goals won’t be realized until we address the root causes of racism. Legal scholar john a. powell argues that, “Suffering is a central concern of social justice.”5 Suffering is also the impetus for compassion. What role, then, can compassion play in advancing racial justice?
Compassion is much more than a desire to help. It should not be confused with pity, which springs from a sense of superiority. Instead, compassion arises from a deep experience of shared humanity and solidarity. Compassion is a powerful force when cultivated, harnessed, and channeled in service of social justice.
Our view of compassion, informed by neuroscience, psychology, and contemplative science, is that it consists of three essential elements: 1) cognitive awareness of suffering; 2) emotional resonance (empathy) with the suffering person; and 3) a commitment to alleviate the suffering (action). These three elements are crucial for achieving social justice.
Awareness, Empathy, and Action
Without awareness and recognition of suffering, it is not possible to alleviate or dismantle the causes of suffering, such as racism. But cognitive awareness alone is not enough. A truly compassionate response to suffering – essential for a sustained commitment to social justice – involves empathy. We have to feel the suffering or injustice, and be touched by it. The literal and symbolic power of George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe,” stirred powerful emotions of empathic outrage across the country and the globe.
But compassion also requires action. For the Dalai Lama, compassion “is not just an idle wish to see sentient beings free from suffering, but an immediate need to intervene and actively engage, to try to help.”6 The most urgent question for individuals and organizations at this moment, as Senator Booker said, echoing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is ‘What can I do?’2 Social justice must be informed by listening to the voices of those who suffer and a mature understanding of the best action to take. The same is true of compassion. Compassion may be expressed by marching together in protest. In other moments, compassionate action means providing intensive, technical medical care, as with the heroic response of health care workers to COVID-19. At other times, the most effective compassionate ‘action’ may be simply sitting in silence and holding the hand of someone who has suffered incalculable loss.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Compassion and justice are actually two sides of the same coin. To realize a compassionate society in which justice prevails, compassion and justice must be built upon millions of individual actions that are fueled by informed awareness and deep empathy. It will take intentional, concerted efforts by all of us to bring about the change that we want to see. During the past three weeks, we have witnessed soul-searching on a massive scale. It is important, both individually and collectively, that we move to action, whether that be protesting, changing laws, writing, voting, befriending, engaging in civic discourse, or other activities. We must commit to enhancing our awareness of structural racism, cultivating our capacity for empathy, and acting from a sense of shared humanity.
At The Task Force for Global Health’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE), we are actively engaged in this process. We created FACE to center compassion in global health discourse and to critically examine the ethics of our practice in service of health equity and social justice. But we must become more explicit about our duty to foster social justice and counter racism. At this moment, we commit to 1) deepening conversations that address the question: ‘What can I do?’; 2) contributing to the organizational-wide work of The Task Force for Global Health to be more intentional about countering racism; 3) doing the ‘inner work’ necessary to examine and counter our own implicit biases; 4) more intentionally partnering with organizations engaged in social justice; and 5) actively seeking opportunities to engage in programs and research on the interface of compassion, equity, and social justice.
These are just the first steps on what will be an evolving path as we seek to deepen our awareness of racial inequities, strengthen our role in remedying bias, and foster social justice both at home and globally.
– David G. Addiss and Ashley L. Graham
- Lincoln A. Gettysburg address, November 19, 1863.
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Cases in the U.S. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html. Accessed June 18, 2020.
- Pilkington E. Black Americans dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people. The Guardian, May 20, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/20/black-americans-death-rate-covid-19-coronavirus. Accessed June 18, 2020.
- Booker C. I am hopeful in this moment. Interview, MSNBC, June 5, 2020. https://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/sen-booker-i-am-hopeful-in-this-moment-84474437769
- powell, john a. Lessons from suffering: How social justice informs spirituality. University of St. Thomas Law Journal 2003-2004:102-127, p. 102.
- Davidson RJ, Harrington A (eds). Visions of compassion: Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists examine human nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 225.