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Empathy on the Tracks

Tomorrow I will ride the Amtrak regional train from Trenton to Washington for the first time since the crash just outside Philadelphia. I ride that train at least twice a week, almost every week, commuting from my home in Princeton to New America’s offices in Washington, DC.

I’m on it so often that on the day of the crash of Train 188, even though I was actually in California, many people called or messaged to be sure I wasn’t, including a middle-of-the-night by a phone call from my husband, who in his sleepy befuddlement suddenly thought I might have been.

Had I been on the train, though, I would have been in that horribly mangled first car; I typically ride business class, which is the car right behind the engine.

When I read about the victims, I could imagine each of them sitting next to me: a writer, the CEO of an education technology company, a real estate executive. Indeed, one of the victims, journalist James Marshall Gaines III, lived in Princeton and was returning home to his two children. His son is the same age as one of mine.

For millions of us who live between Washington and Boston and ride Amtrak for work, it is all too easy to put ourselves in the others’ shoes – the shoes of the dead and the injured – and to imagine the shock, fear, and loss of those on the train and those waiting for passengers who never came home. We can do more than imagine it—we actually feel it in a way that stays with us.

That feeling of there but for the grace of God go we is exactly what so many of us are not able to do when we read accounts or even see images of young black men shot by police officers. As white, well-off Americans living in largely segregated communities, we do not know anyone like Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray. We know no one who may have been a kid or even an adult periodically in trouble with the law for minor or even major offenses but who was also a father, son, brother and husband.

We cannot imagine that “it could have been us,” or even that so many victims of violence might be connected to us in some way. The distance of that divide is not only opened up by racial difference. I find it almost as difficult to imagine what it is like to be a cop – white or black – working the streets in a society where every bad guy has a gun, if not an arsenal, and in which the funerals of your fellow officers are all too frequent. Virtually everything I know about police officers I know (or think I know, more likely) from cop shows.

Empathy was what changed last summer when I read about the shooting of Michael Brown and saw the protesters on the streets of Ferguson – and then watched the pattern repeat in city after city, state, after state. I was then and am now a mother of teenagers who along with their friends have had occasional encounters with the police. In each case my reaction has been that I am glad that the police are there to make clear that doing stupid things comes with real consequences, essentially scaring the kids enough to reinforce the lessons we parents are trying to drive home. It has never occurred to me that my sons could be in any danger from the police. But over the last year, I have listened to African-American parents of all classes, from the President on down, who are telling us that teaching their sons how to behave to avoid being shot when they are stopped by police is a horrifying rite of teen passage.

The great generation of political scientists writing on democracy in the early 1960s – Seymour Martin Lipset, Robert Dahl, and others – emphasized the importance “cross-cutting cleavages”—the ways in which divisions of class, race, religion, geography, profession etc. cut across rather than reinforce each other. In other words, white and affluent citizens might also attend church and live in a community with people who are racially or socio-economically unlike them but with whom they could identify as fellow parishioners or fellow parents at their kids’ school.The opposite of cross-cutting cleavages is racial, religious, income, and geographic stratification. When we live in a society in which the richest members never even take the same transport as their poorer fellow citizens or live in the same communities or send their children to the same schools, the bonds of common political or social identity fray into nothingness. Fellow feeling becomes impossible.

Ironically, I have often thought that riding the train is one of the few places that different sectors of American society do rub shoulders. I do sometimes see a much wider cross-section of race and class on the train than I ever do in my workplace or neighborhood. But those trains are not the regionals between Boston, New York, and DC. They are the trains that run much longer routes – the Southern Crescent from New Orleans to New York; the Vermonter from Washington to Northern Vermont. They carry entire families, from grandparents to children, often hunkered down with food for what can be several days of travel. Because they serve a generally poorer demographic they are often hours late and in my experience never go over 100 miles an hour.

The acts of social imagination that allow us to feel the pain of others because we can put ourselves in their place—without dismissing it as alien or co-opting it as our own—are essential to exercising political courage and enacting change. Political representatives must be able to put themselves in the shoes of Americans who are not of their party, or indeed not even their constituents. Cities must bring different communities together who rarely if ever talk to each other and ask citizens to stop demonizing each other. In sociological terms, we need to be able to see “the other” and imagine that he or she is someone we might know or even be.

A country driven by such acts of imagination would indeed be a new America.


Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America, a think ​and action ​tank dedicated to renewing America in the Digital Age.