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Urban Rhythms

The Compassion Gap

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 9/2/1998

In July, The Boston Globe demanded the resignation of a popular metro columnist who had been accused of fabricating quotes and sources. A few weeks later, the Globe demanded the resignation of a second popular metro columnist, accused of pretty much the same offense.

The first columnist, a black woman named Patricia Smith, resigned, wrote a farewell column to her readers, and slunk out of town like a beaten cur.

The second columnist, a white man named Mike Barnicle, refused to resign and defiantly accused the paper of treating him, a white man, more harshly than he deserved in order to justify its treatment of Smith, a black woman who got her just desserts. This argument apparently struck home. The Globe's editor agonized for several days and then reduced Barnicle's punishment to a suspension without pay. Eventually Barnicle resigned, but only after more allegations of plagiarism and slipshod journalism surfaced.

I wish I had the space to go into this case in minute detail--not only because it offers a fascinating study of the hows and whys of the disparate treatment of blacks and whites in the workplace, but also because it provides an even more fascinating study of how this disparity in treatment is perceived by the public. Taken together, the Smith and Barnicle cases were sort of like the O.J. Simpson trial, but without gavel-to-gavel coverage.

For example, the two cases were not precisely alike, and those differences probably played a role in the different initial outcomes.

Barnicle is older than Smith, more experienced, with deeper community ties. When the Globe demanded her resignation, Smith gave it, with scarcely a whimper. Neither her readers nor her colleagues knew she was under fire until after she had resigned. When the Globe demanded Barnicle's resignation, he told his bosses to go to hell and organized his friends and fans to rally to his defense. He argued his case on national television and on a syndicated radio program. Readers rallied to his defense. A major retailer threatened to pull its advertising if Barnicle left the paper. Several celebrity journalists voiced their sympathy. Remember, Barnicle initially saved his job; he resigned only in the face of even more allegations.

Would defiance have saved Smith's job? Would an organized, forceful protest have helped? Are blacks more vulnerable in the workplace because they lack the clout of their white counterparts, or does black perception of powerlessness become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

It's also interesting to observe that whites and blacks tend to view the Globe case from very different perspectives--just as in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. African-American observers argued that Smith was treated especially harshly because she is black and female. White observers initially agreed with Barnicle that he was being singled out for harsh treatment because he is white and male. Sorting the ins and outs--separating reality from perceptions--will be the subject of my doctoral thesis some day.

Another aspect of all this leaps out at me and demands comment. And that is the issue of compassion.

Compassion.

Barnicle, while defiant, also demanded that he be treated with compassion.

"I've been with the Globe for 25 years," he said again and again after the allegations against him first surfaced. "We shouldn't throw that down the drain for one little mistake." Smith did not ask for compassion, and no one offered her any.

I believe that compassion--or the lack thereof--lies at the root of the disparity in treatment of black and whites. For whites, compassion often is a given. They have to commit some particularly heinous offense before compassion is withheld. For blacks, the focus is on guilt or innocence. Asking for compassion is so foreign, the speaker may as well be babbling in Ebonics.

In the early 1980s, I did a series of stories pointing to the disproportionate numbers of blacks sentenced to prison compared to whites convicted of similar offenses. A number of sources--black and white--addressed the issue of compassion. They noted that a white police officer, confronting someone suspected of committing a relatively minor offense such as vandalism or disturbing the peace, might be more likely to adhere to the letter of the law if the offender is black. A white judge might be more likely to recommend time in jail. A white parole officer might be more likely to reject a petition for early release.

At each level, in fact, subconscious decisions might be made about whether a suspect or convicted offender deserves a second chance, and those decisions might be based on race.

The same pattern of decisions, I believe, occur in the workplace. And in the classroom. And in the loan office. They occur wherever individuals are being judged by other individuals.

The Boston Globe cases might seem at first glance poor vehicles for an argument about compassion, since in the end both columnists lost their jobs. But I would submit that Barnicle resigned amid expressions of sorrow and after other, less harsher penalties were considered. Smith resigned amid cold silence.

I would submit further that a system that acts without compassion will always be perceived to be unjust--even if the penalties it metes out are deserved.

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