From Empathy Gap to Reparations: An Analysis of Caregiving, Criminalization, and Family Empowerment

By Charisa Smith

America’s legacy of violent settler colonialism and racial capitalism reveals a misunderstood and neglected civil rights concern: the forced separation of families of color and unwarranted state intrusion upon caregiving through criminalization and surveillance. The War on Drugs, the Opioid Crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic are a few examples demonstrating the precariousness of our nation’s collective empathy well toward caregivers and our tattered social safety net. In fact, these instances illuminate what this Essay coins an “empathy gap” in perception when the general public, policy makers, and the mainstream media view similarly situated families with different identities. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic presents both a tragic crisis and an unparalleled opportunity to reimagine the status quo for communities of color and society at large. Families and children deserve comprehensive transformation resourced through the abolition of carceral protection systems, reinvestment in social supports, and true reparations for slavery.

This Essay reconciles fragmented perspectives on family integrity and civil rights, analyzing empirical research about disparate treatment while engaging the framework of vulnerability theory. Ultimately, a paradigm shift is needed. Public health and socioeconomic well-being necessitate protection for marginalized families and innovation beyond the limits of law. Recognition of the inherent vulnerability in the human condition is pivotal to achieving family empowerment, economic justice, and racial justice.