Monday, January 19, 2015

The transitive property of empathy

I've been meaning to write about this ever since the murder of Trayvon Martin, but race is a painful subject and I put it off.  However, I feel compelled to write about this for MLK day.

Trayvon Martin was an American teenager who went out in the rain to buy a treat for his younger sibling.  While he was out, he was stalked and killed by a vigilante ("neighborhood watch volunteer").  His killer was acquitted of murder charges because he argued that he "feared for his life" when Trayvon tried to fend the killer off.
Trayvon in a hoodie
Look at the child in this photo. My heart goes out to his parents.

Someone asked me why I was so emotionally devastated by this and I had to explain the transitive property of empathy. She wasn't a math major so I am not sure she understood what I meant.

In math, the transitive property of equality states that, if A=B and B=C, then A=C.


starts about 25 years ago, when I was taking graduate classes in physics at the University of Colorado.  Applied mathematics and theoretical physics students take many of the same courses.  The difference is that math students try to extend or invent mathematics.  If their math has real-world applications, that is just incidental.

Physics students like me just use the mathematics they develop to help explain or predict physical phenomena.  If we extend the math, that is just incidental.

I had exactly one black classmate in my mathematical physics classes; R was an applied mathematics graduate student.  Our paths crossed in several of the more theoretical classes.  I might have been memorable because there were few females, particularly American ones, in those classes.

Another physics student invited me to a party at his house.  R was also a guest and we had a lengthy conversation for the first time.  We talked about our classwork and research, how we were adjusting to life in Boulder, etc.

The most memorable thing about our conversation is that R and I both were consumed with trying to understand "our equations", the set of equations describing the thing we were trying to understand.  We were working with different equations, describing different processes.  (Well, in his case, the math doesn't even have to describe anything physical.)

We bonded over the admission that we sometimes fall asleep while puzzling over our equations and dreamt about them.  We were two students, from different parts of the country, different genders, different races, but I knew in that instant that R was my tribe.

The tribe of people for whom math is a passion is not large (in my personal experience, YMMV).

You attack a member of my tribe, you attack me.


Another time, R told me about how a police car followed him as he walked from the bus stop to his home.  The cruiser left only after R used a key to unlock the front door.  (R rented the basement apartment in a house in a non-studenty part of Boulder.)

The police car crept behind him on subsequent nights.  The officers would slow down, recognize him, and then take off without following him all the way to his house.  The implication is that a black man is inherently suspicious.

I was pretty outraged by this type of police behavior.  R's civil rights were being violated!

R said that was just his life as a black man.

Trayvon was followed by not the police, but a vigilante masquerading as a neighborhood watch volunteer.

R had a similar experience.  R lived to relate his experience.  Trayvon did not.

Trayvon was just a child.  He was still learning how to cope with the George Zimmermans of this world--something that white children do not need to learn.

In closing

Trayvon's death, and Zimmerman's acquittal, is a self-inflicted wound for all Americans.  It's time to analyze what led to this tragedy and how to prevent future ones.

If you are interested in other human lessons that mathematics has taught me, read Lessons of Freeway Calculus.


  1. a lovely analogy, but you knew i'd like this one. :)

    i'm worried about our short collective memory. the acts of defiance in recent cases were heartening, but they seem to have fizzled. will folks remember Trayvon? or Eric? or any of the others? more empathy would help engrave these injustices on more souls.

  2. It's virtually impossible for white people (like myself) to have any sense of what life as like as a person who is suspicious by default. I witness some of it by my proximity to my husband, but I'm pretty sure that my presence regulates it somewhat.

    The words of Chris Rock in this article ( run through my mind a lot, and especially when I think of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and the thousands who have never had any publicity about them at all. It's time for white people to take responsilblity for demanding the end of racism. To call out other white people for their lazy assumptions about people who 'don't look like they're from here' or 'look suspicious'. To demand equal treatment for everyone, on the street, in the workplace, in the criminal justice system. I don't know what that looks like but I hope it starts to happen.

    In a totally separate note, I just love the line in your article "I pass through the state of my ideal self". This is really something to strive for. Thanks for the great read.

  3. Beautiful post, excellent analysis and "proof"

    1. Amen. How many young black men have to die before we have proven that racism is a pervasive and dangerous problem in our society? And how many times do we have to prove it before we can shift the null hypothesis from 'racism does not exist' to 'racism does exist'?

    2. Wish I knew the answer to that one...

    3. I just wish more people spoke out about this. It really needs to be us "regular" folks speaking about it before things will change. Every time a young black man/boy is killed I cry and I worry about my three black grandsons.

      At times it just seems that our country is not progressing at all...

    4. I fear that we are regressing by pretending that racism is in the past instead of the pervasive current reality.


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