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Most of Us Have Compassion for Those Most Like Ourselves

October 20, 2000|ELEANOR BROWN | Eleanor Brown is a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C

Presidential candidate George W. Bush has promised to "rally the armies of compassion" in addreskcsing America's most pressing social problems. Single mothers? Absentee fathers? Drug addicts? Let's just mobilize family, neighborhood and community resources.

Bush's pxolicy assumes that armies of compassionate volunteers will march out of the suburbs to rally around the black urban poor. But Bush's optimism lacks a basis in reality. The fact is, very few inner-city residents experience the benefits of programs run by suburbanites who abandon their cushy pads to live beside "the least among us."

As Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, authors of "American Apartheid," demonstrate, 75% of blacks live in highly segregated neighborhoods. Indeed, the neighborhoods in which poor urban blacks reside are "hyper segregated" places where residential segregation creates nearly total social isolation.

Yes, compassionate white suburbanites volunteer for all sorts of things. But where? Close to home, among their neighbors. Other than on the stage of the Republican National Convention, these people are not very likely to have much contact with those most in need of their labor of compassion.

Marvin Olasky, the oft-described "father" of compassionate conservatism and an influential advisor to the Bush campaign, tells many tales of wealthy people doing extraordinary things. Former professional athletes abandon lives of fame and fortune to minister to lost souls in poor black communities. The CEO of the nation's largest real estate development company leaves his job to develop inner city neighborhoods. The list goes on. Bush envisions that these generous individuals will provide role models that he believes have been absent from poor urban neighborhoods, role models who hold regular jobs, marry and have children (in that order) and maintain life-long commitments to their families.

But Bush and Olasky seem to forget that a fundamental feature of compassion is that it is rooted in empathy. And people are empathetic and compassionate to people who are most like themselves, people from similar neighborhoods, schools and cultures.

Bush makes much of the profound religious devotion of many of those who are courageous enough to bridge racial and socioeconomic boundaries. While it is true that religious Americans are more likely to volunteer than their secular counterparts, this does not address the question of who they help. The volunteering habits of evangelical Christians are particularly telling in this regard. According to Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: Civic Disengagement in America," when evangelical Christians volunteer, they are vastly more likely to assist fellow evangelicals than those outside of their own religious community. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America."

What does this mean for poor blacks in a compassionate conservative America?

Bush has some hard thinking to do. Yes, Americans are compassionate. Yet it is profoundly unrealistic to expect them to exercise compassion outside of the communities in which they live. There is a fundamental disconnect between the reservoirs of compassion and the communities that need it. The reality is that compassion itself is segregated.

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