From left to right, Aimée Meredith Cox, Pun Bandhu, Rubén Rosario Rodriguez, and Ariela Gross.
Photo by Leo Sorel

Can racial injustice in America be overcome by fostering more empathy in our culture? Perhaps, but there’s a lot more to it than that, panelists said at a Fordham event on Feb. 24.

“All of the efforts of generations of civil rights activists to transform the American conscience cannot succeed without empathy,” said theologian Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, one of the panelists. While empathy is not sufficient by itself, he said, “empathy is not something we’ve tried hard enough. Empathy is something that needs to be nurtured over time, and it cannot be legislated.”

The event, titled “Is Empathy Enough? Racial Justice and the Moral Imagination in the 21st Century,” posed questions about why racial injustice persists 50 years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act.

The talk was held at Pope Auditorium at the Lincoln Center campus. It was co-sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and the Fordham theatre program and moderated by Aimee Meredith Cox, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of African and African American Studies.

The forum was tied in with the theatre program’s mainstage production of a play by Jackie Sibblies Drury,We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

Before the panel discussion, student-actors presented a scene from the play in which characters argue about crossing racial lines in portraying a character. One of the panelists took up the topic of discrimination in the theatre, saying empathy isn’t enough to keep theatre producers from routinely bypassing Asian actors.

“I talk all the time with really well-intentioned theatre makers who do have the empathy, and yet nothing much gets done about it. It’s not met with action,” said panelist Pun Bandhu, an award-winning actor and founding member of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC).

Asians are given a minuscule share of the available theatre roles in New York City, according to AAPAC’s numbers. Bandhu drew a comparison with the corporate world—“To make diversity a real core value of a corporation, that’s when things actually happen.” Also needed are consciousness-raising efforts and activism of the sort practiced by AAPAC, he said.

In describing the need to nurture empathy rather than try to legislate it, Rodríguez invoked Jesus Christ’s gentle persuasion through evangelization.

Students from the theater program perform a scene from “We Are Proud to Present…”

“Jesus understood that coercion does not lead to moral transformation,” said Rodríguez, author of Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective (NYU Press, 2008). “That is why he preached in parables. These parables are wonderful, open-ended stories that leave the audience thinking— much like the play that we saw a scene from today. The interpretation is up to us. We get involved in the narrative. It becomes our story.”

Panelist Ariela Gross—historian, legal scholar, and author of What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial (Harvard University Press, 2010)—spoke about the role of history in cultivating empathy.

“As a historian, I believe empathy is possible, that historiography, the writing of history, helps to make empathy possible,” she said. “I agree very much with my fellow panelists that it’s about storytelling. As we tell stories about the past and about the present, we imagine other futures. We have to stretch ourselves to imagine worlds and consciousnesses that are very different from our own.”