At Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings senators are debating the relative merit of empathy as a professional attribute of a Supreme Court justice. Republicans spent Monday morning arguing that empathy impedes the cool rationality to which justices should aspire, while Democrats argued that empathy improves judicial decisions because it allows judges to imagine the full impact of their choices.
Whether or not empathy impedes or facilitates jurisprudence may be up for debate, but the importance of empathy for social justice movements seems obvious.
The effectiveness of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement rested on generating empathy among fair-minded whites appalled by the brutal mistreatment of black citizens in the South. One reason that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. targeted Birmingham, Alabama was his expectation that police chief Bull Connor’s violent overreaction to protestors would elicit national empathy for the cause of civil rights and full equality. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a classic political treatise calling on the empathetic impulses of white church leaders.
This history of politics and empathy was violated by the SCLC this week. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization founded and led by Dr. King, is considering dismissing the president of its Los Angeles chapter because of his vocal opposition to Proposition 8. During the 2008 election the SCLC officially took a neutral position with regards to California’s Proposition 8, which stripped gay men and lesbians of the right to marry. With his national organization silent on the issue, Los Angeles SCLC chapter president Rev. Eric P. Lee worked hard to oppose the measure. In a display of political empathy Lee explained "it was clear to me that any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have that is a clear violation of civil rights and I have to speak up on that."
Now Reverend Lee has been summoned by the SCLC’s national board to explain his advocacy on behalf of marriage equality or face being removed from his position.
There are so many things wrong with this. At moments like this I wish I were a snarky comedian, political cartoonist, or smart satirist rather than simply a college professor. Somehow those media seem better suited to capturing the ridiculousness of the SCLC’s behavior. But let me try.
Simply put a national civil rights organization that takes a "neutral position" on an issue of basic civil rights does not deserve to exist. Whatever the personal beliefs and prejudices of individual leaders of the SCLC, the organization’s mission as a "nonprofit, non-sectarian, inter-faith, advocacy organization that is committed to non-violent action to achieve social, economic, and political justice" requires that it stand forcefully against efforts to impose second class citizenship on an entire group simply because of identity.