Empathy Is Not Enough

Almost 30 years ago, education researcher and children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop introduced an analogy that has been widely embraced by the librarians, teachers, artists, and scholars ...

Almost 30 years ago, education researcher and children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop introduced an analogy that has been widely embraced by the librarians, teachers, artists, and scholars involved in the #weneeddiversebooks movement. Stories featuring underrepresented minorities, Bishop observed, can function as both mirrors and windows. Members of marginalized groups can see themselves represented as worthy protagonists; members of dominant groups can learn about how it feels to walk a mile in a less privileged person’s shoes.

Judging by the rave reviews it’s getting on blogs and bookseller websites, Angie Thomas’s stunning young adult novel The Hate U Give is functioning brilliantly as both mirror and window. One after another, readers from diverse backgrounds recount how deeply they came to care about the novel’s main protagonist: Starr Carter, a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses a white policeman gun down her childhood friend Khalil during a routine traffic stop. As Starr tries to figure out whether and how she will speak up about what happened that horrible night, she faces pressure from the media, the police, lawyers, and various constituencies within her own community, including a group of activists based on the Black Lives Matter movement.

For me, The Hate U Give was a window into a kind of neighborhood I have never inhabited. While the overwhelmingly white private school that Starr attends on scholarship felt familiar to me, the poor, predominantly black community that she and Khalil live in did not. Reading about their experiences clued me in about matters ranging from the frivolous (what “daps” and “fades” are) to the serious (how even minor criminal convictions restrict Americans’ rights in multiple ways for the rest of their lives). Although Starr is a champion code-switcher, she nevertheless feels like something of a misfit in both of the communities she inhabits, which means that anyone who has ever felt out-of-place can easily relate to her.

Yet what fascinates me most about The Hate U Give are the formal choices Thomas makes that actively impede readers from identifying and empathizing with her characters. It’s no accident that even Starr, our super-sympathetic narrator, keeps telling us that she “kinda hate[s] sympathy.” Thomas makes a series of counterintuitive decisions regarding character development and the way the action of her novel unfolds, all of which seem motivated by the concern that feelings of personal identification and empathy, though valuable, are not enough to combat the corrosive force of systemic social problems. By directing our readerly attention away from the personal and the particular and toward the broader social circumstances that shape the fates of her characters, Thomas simultaneously evokes and attempts to counteract the effects of inhabiting a society riven by structural racism and economic inequality.

The first surprising formal choice Thomas makes is her decision to set the shooting so close to the start of her story. The Hate U Give is over 400 pages long, yet Khalil gets killed almost immediately, in Chapter Two. Not only have readers barely gotten to know him at this point in the story, we also are given multiple reasons to distrust him. He materializes out of a raucous crowd at a spring break party that Starr attends in Garden Heights, the impoverished urban neighborhood in which they grew up. Starr’s first glimpse of Khalil’s expensive sneakers and diamond earrings prompts her to worry that he’s been doing something illegal, like dealing drugs. By the end of this opening chapter, we have learned to trust her judgment, since the foreboding she expresses in the first line of the novel—“I shouldn’t have come to this party”—proves justified: she and Khalil flee the rowdy party because gang violence breaks out, sending them running to his car to escape gunfire.

Thomas depicts a community that, while flawed, is also full of nurturing and neighborliness, gardening and cooking, joking and dancing, large and small acts of charity, kindness, and love.

As if all this were not enough to inhibit our readerly impulse to identify with Khalil, Thomas frames the scene in which the cop shoots him in a way that invites us to blame the victim. Khalil and Starr get pulled over at the end of the first chapter because one of his taillights isn’t working. Thomas then pauses the action at the start of Chapter Two as Starr mentally flashes back to the moment when she turned 12 and her parents had two talks with her: “the usual birds and bees” one, plus a lecture about what to do if you are stopped by the police. During the tense moment when she and Khalil are waiting for the policeman to approach their car, Starr spells out for readers the “rules” her father taught her: do “whatever they tell you to do,” speak only when spoken to, and make no sudden moves.

Apprising readers of these “rules” might make some of us more likely to hold Khalil responsible when he “breaks” them—the verb that Starr herself uses to describe his actions. Yet Khalil does nothing criminal in this scene. He does talk out of turn and open his front car door to check on Starr after the officer has yanked him out of his car, pinned him against the back door for multiple pat-downs, and ordered him to “stay here” while he returns to his patrol car to check Khalil’s license. Why does Khalil get shot? Not because there are any drugs, guns, or other evidence of wrongdoing in his car—there aren’t—but because he inhabits a culture in which people of color are so likely to be harassed and harmed by cops that even 12-year-old girls have to be carefully taught how to guard themselves against being presumed guilty and attacked.

Why, then, does Thomas present Khalil to us as a rule-breaker? After all, she clearly agrees with Starr’s father, who later remarks that a white teenager in a wealthy neighborhood would almost certainly have walked away without a scratch in this situation. Unfortunately, recent reports on how real-life police officers treat African Americans support this stance. When the Justice Department conducted an investigation of police activity in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, they found that even though African-American drivers are 26 percent less likely to be found in possession of contraband, they are “more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated.” In 2016, journalists at the Washington Post received a Pulitzer Prize for compiling the first national database to track every fatal shooting by an American police officer in the line of duty. Unarmed black people, they found, were five times as likely as unarmed white ones to be shot and killed by a law enforcement officer.


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Thomas has Starr characterize Khalil as a rule-breaker as part of a larger effort to show us that white people are not the only group to blame Khalil for his own death. The insidious force of structural racism has affected members of the black community, too. “I heard that Khalil boy got himself killed last night,” the local barber remarks to Starr and her father. “He was probably selling that stuff.” This conversation happens the morning after Khalil’s death, which means that even before the press and people intent on defending the officer’s actions start implying that Khalil was killed because he did something wrong, his own community has already begun judging him in a similar way.

Thomas lets the question of whether Khalil has committed crimes unrelated to the shooting hang in the air throughout much of the novel. In a bravura display of the power of fiction to get readers to care about all kinds of characters, she makes Khalil’s life matter to us even though we barely know him and he is exactly what the news reports say he is: a “suspected drug dealer.” This authorial feat is particularly impressive given that Starr, our narrator, does not give us intimate access to what’s going on inside Khalil’s head or heart. She has fallen out of touch with her old friend, and cannot tell us what he’s been thinking, feeling, or doing.

How does Thomas make us care about and mourn the loss of such an opaque character? This brings us to her second formal innovation, a shift away from the individual in her approach to characterization. Rather than zoom in on Khalil’s inner life, Thomas pans out to show us how enmeshed he is in the community he inhabits. We learn, for example, that he is Starr’s oldest friend and first crush. One of the first things she tells us about him is that his grandma used to bathe them together when they were tiny. Years later they shared a kiss at Vacation Bible School. Khalil’s grandma, Ms. Rosalie, is the reason why Starr’s mother was able to go to college and get a well-paying job; Ms. Rosalie took her in when she was homeless and later babysat Starr and her little brother for free, alongside Khalil, whose mother is a drug addict. Over the course of Khalil and Starr’s conversation at the party and in the car, we learn a bit about why Khalil gave up his minimum-wage job in Starr’s dad’s store for more lucrative work: he was “tired of choosing between lights and food” as he struggles to support his little brother and Ms. Rosalie, recently diagnosed with cancer and fired from her job because chemo treatments have made her too weak to work.

Seeing Khalil through Starr’s eyes helps readers to follow Dr. Martin Luther King’s injunction “to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”1 By situating Starr and Khalil in a complexly interwoven web of loving relationships, Thomas also makes us care about the community of Garden Heights. She immerses us in the nuances of the neighborhood, filling in details that help to explain why Khalil’s life goes wrong, and also why Starr and other lucky kids’ lives go right despite the odds stacked against them.

Thomas seems to say that feelings of empathy are not enough to combat the corrosive force of systemic social problems.

The news reports after Khalil’s death portray Garden Heights as a wasteland wrecked by drug dealing, rioting, and other kinds of criminality. But Thomas depicts a human community that, while flawed, is also full of nurturing and neighborliness, gardening and cooking, joking and dancing, large and small acts of charity, kindness, and love. Even minor characters have major impact here, including local restaurant owner Mr. Reuben, who pins local kids’ good report cards to his “All-Star Wall” and gives free meals even to those who bring in bad ones, so long as they pledge do better.

Thomas doesn’t limit herself to highlighting the endearing side of a kind of community that too often gets demonized. She also alerts us to the larger structural forces that have contributed to the decimation of poor neighborhoods nationwide, including a dearth of jobs paying sufficient wages and a public school system that often fails to equip working-class children for college and for lucrative employment. A key reason why Starr falls out of touch with Khalil is that her family feels compelled to send her and her siblings to a fancy suburban prep school 45 minutes away from their home. In a neighborhood where “it’s easier to find some crack than it is to find a good school,” it’s harder for young people to resist the lure of criminal activities that supply them with a path out of poverty. Thomas’s point is not that teenagers like Khalil bear no personal responsibility for their life choices, but that those choices are often sharply constrained by family and social circumstances they had no hand in creating.

Thomas also weaves into her novel references to the most damaging aspects of the politically motivated “War on Drugs”: a set of policies that legal scholar Michelle Alexander has characterized as “the new Jim Crow” because they disproportionately disenfranchise black people. A series of court decisions—granting police much more discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, for example—has given conscious and unconscious racial bias a freer rein. Studies show that although “people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates,” black and brown people get incarcerated for such crimes far more often than whites. In the 2012 revised edition of The New Jim Crow, Alexander notes that even though the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white—with some data suggesting that white youth are more likely than any other group to engage in illegal drug possession and sales—“three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” The mass incarceration of black boys and men wreaks tragic collateral damage on children and communities of color, as Thomas’s narrative illustrates.

Recognizing that Thomas delineates character by filling in the space around her protagonists—rather than delving into their inner beings—helps us to see that she is not anti-cop. True, Starr refers to the policeman who killed Khalil solely by his badge number, which seems like a blatant attempt to dehumanize him. But the opaqueness of “One-Fifteen” actually links him to Khalil. Just like the boy whose life he takes, this man never again appears in person after Chapter Two. We do not learn whether he personally is racist, because Thomas’s goal is not to condemn particular people. Instead, she seeks to focus our attention on the larger structural problems that contributed to Khalil’s killing and all the other acts of harassment and violence that occur in Garden Heights.

Neither Khalil nor the policeman is portrayed as unique. Both have multiple doubles who behave or get treated much as they do. In one particularly harrowing scene, for example, a different cop roughly forces Starr’s father to the ground to search him without cause in front of his children. Finding nothing, he warns Mr. Carter, “I’m keeping an eye on you, boy.” The fact that this policeman is black once again underscores how pervasive structural racism is, even as the presence of good cops such as Starr’s Uncle Carlos prompts readers not to demonize the police.

A third and final surprising choice Thomas makes—this one related to suspense and plot resolution—likewise attests to her unwillingness to dish out speciously precise doses of praise and blame. Even though the grand jury’s deliberations on the question of whether to charge the cop who killed Khalil with a crime is obviously integral to the plot, Thomas sidelines this strand of the narrative and drains it of drama. It becomes just one subplot among many—and its resolution late in the novel occurs without a climactic courtroom scene. Instead, a radio DJ’s offhand comment accidentally alerts Starr and her friends to what verdict has been reached. Racism and its tragic aftereffects, Thomas suggests, resemble an ever-present background noise, which constantly threatens to break into (and break up) the lives of black people in America. Yet it also constitutes just one aspect of those richly heterogeneous and multilayered lives.

Even as it serves as a mirror for those complex and various lives, The Hate U Give also works as a window for readers like me, who do not face the imminent threat of injustice on a daily basis. The education that Thomas offers, however, doesn’t rely solely on my personal identification with particular characters. It’s also built into the structure of the plot.

As Starr’s community waits for the grand jury decision, no one has much hope that the policeman will be held accountable. Yet life goes on, and most keep trying to do right, even though they know it won’t stop other people from treating them wrong. Similarly, we-as-readers keep turning the pages, even though we know from the start that Khalil’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. In lieu of redemption, Thomas supplies us with a rich compilation of other dramas—some comic, some romantic—that lend interest, insight, and joy to the proceedings. But the shadow of looming injustice hangs over everything else that’s happening. Like the characters, readers move forward, despite knowing that past wrongs can never be fully righted and justice may not prevail this time, nor the next time, nor the next.

The structure of Thomas’s novel also echoes that of the horror movies Starr and her friends enjoy watching, which—as film scholar Robin R. Means Coleman notes in Horror Noire—often begin by killing off a black guy. Coleman observes that when world-threatening monsters such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park destroy black men in the film’s opening minutes, the implication is both that black men are fearful antagonists and that they are expendable minor characters, whose demise affirms the superiority of the white people who will eventually save the day. The monster in The Hate U Give is not one person but systemic racism and poverty. Instead of treating the doomed black character as dispensable, Thomas insists that we recognize that Khalil’s life matters no matter what neighborhood he comes from or what crimes he may have committed in the past.

Empathy is important. But by dubbing her fictionalized version of Black Lives Matter “Just Us for Justice,” Thomas reminds readers that identifying with and mourning the loss of fictional black teens is not enough. Only broad-based activism aimed at outlawing the discriminatory policies and procedures Alexander describes can dissipate the deadly force of structural racism. Starr’s name is ironic in the sense that she has no desire to be a public figure; circumstances compel her to evolve into an activist. At a moment when Khalil’s real-life counterparts keep getting killed on American streets, we all should follow her lead. icon

  1. Cornel West sums up King’s stance in these words in the preface to The New Jim Crow.
Featured image: Police car, New Castle, Pennsylvania, 2012. Photograph by WCN24/7 / Flickr