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Empathy and The Loving Story

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama let us know who he would be selecting as judicial nominees.

You know, Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recogni-- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges.

This “empathy standard” became a red herring used to attack the President and qualified jurists like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Then Senator Ted Kaufman (DE) emphasized just how wrong that argument was.

Likewise, President Obama’s promotion of empathy is not, as his critics suggest, the advocacy of bias. “Empathy,” as a quick look at the dictionary will confirm, is not the same as “sympathy.” “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Let me repeat that. “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Words have meanings, and we should not make arguments that depend on misconstruing those meanings.

As we continue to hear empathy trotted out as something sinister, it’s important to consider where our country might’ve been without it. That’s the lesson of The Loving Story.

Virginia’s argument that its law did not discriminate on the basis of race because it restricted both whites and African Americans equally might have persuaded Justices who were blind to the devastating impact of anti-miscegenation laws on everyday people. However, empathy allowed the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia to see what it really meant to ban interracial marriage. Yet just because that meant the Warren Court came down on the side of the “little guy,” doesn’t mean it ignored constitutional principles.

This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.

It just so happens that the Lovings were on the right side of the Constitution in their struggle to live with who they loved, where they were happiest, and where they wanted to raise their family.

If you get the chance to see The Loving Story, as I did at a DC screening earlier this week (more in Silver Spring next week), think about Mildred and Richard Loving and the countless couples who faced the same struggle. Think about how their state laws wronged not only them but also the Constitution. Think about how empathy put justice back on track.

Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office, sums it up better than I ever could.

PFAW