Bystander Intervention

My older son’s godmother recently included me in an email message she sent to a number of her friends and relatives. The subject line of the email was “What would you do?” and the message contained a link to two ABC News videos. She further disclosed that she and her husband had bets on how each recipient would react to the videos and answer their question, “What would you do?”

I encourage readers to click on these links (, and ask themselves this question. The videos are disturbing and yet, at the same time, somewhat encouraging.

ABC News conducted a social experiment in which an actor working in a New Jersey deli refuses to serve two Hispanic men or women, also working for ABC News, who cannot speak English. The actor makes a variety of racist comments to the men and women in the presence of other store patrons. The objective was to see if anyone intervened on the Hispanics’ behalf. Of the 80+ customers who witnessed this overt racism, some did nothing and many supported the actor by adding racist comments of their own; the victims’ and bystanders’ gender did not seem to make a difference in the reactions. About 30 bystanders, though, did intervene and were quite strong in denouncing the actor’s words and behavior. That’s a little more than 35%, which in 2009, when we are about to inaugurate our first African American president, may seem discouragingly low.

But being familiar with the extensive research on bystander apathy, I found reason to be optimistic in considering this outcome, and I was especially heartened by the vehemence of the bystanders’ denunciations.

An important component of these videos is the point that the racist behavior of the deli counter worker/actor is not unusual. Interviews with Hispanic day laborers reveal that they encounter this sort of treatment on a regular basis. And as moving as they are infuriating, the day laborers’ accounts give viewers a sense of the toll this everyday racism takes on those who are subjected to it. It is perhaps this aspect of the videos that will motivate viewers to work harder to ensure that future experiments of this type will find every bystander who witnesses racism clearly and strongly denouncing it.


  1. Kristen L

    Thanks for the post, Claire – I will use it in class. Another episode of the show – this one is good for teaching about perceptions of black males as criminals and about protecting the racial “sanctity” of white suburbia – (Part 1: (Part 2: This episode is not encouraging at all; in it, black youth sleeping in a car in the park summoned more calls to 911 than white youth blatantly vandalizing a car a few feet away.

  2. Claire Renzetti Author

    There is a very good recent CNN story reporting on a study of people’s reactions to witnessing racism that could be used with the ABC News video in classes: Entitled “You May Be More Racist Than You Think,” the study confirms what many of us know: that while many people claim not to be racist, their actions (or lack thereof) tell a different story altogether. Thanks to my colleague, Leslie Picca, for bringing the CNN report to my attention.

  3. Anonymous

    This didn’t really seem like a race issue as much as a culture issue. And if someone wants to live in the United States, shouldn’t there be a degree of assimilation? I mean, if I decided to go live in Mexico, I would learn the language and how people live before going there. The only thing that really bugged me about that video was that some of the people were so quick to say they’re illegal. I think if I had been the guy behind the counter, I would’ve just given them water.

  4. Claire Renzetti Author

    Anonymous raises an interesting issue that I hear often, “So why don’t they just learn English?” When I read this comment, I sat down and counted the number of different countries in which I’ve traveled and lived — 51 in all, most where English is not the primary language spoken. These are countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. I never learned any of the languages well enough to converse fluently, except when I worked in West Africa and had to be conversant in French (with several ethnic dialects mixed in). I traveled freely in every locale, going to restaurants, shopping, riding public transport, trying to find my way around — and every time I sought help from anyone, I received it. No one ever suggested I was illegal, that I didn’t belong, that somehow I didn’t deserve to order food or ride the bus or whatever because I could not speak their language. It takes considerable time to learn another language, and many people who come to the US do eventually learn English well enough to communicate without difficulty. But I have also noticed that for people like the counter clerk in the video, even that isn’t enough; the mere presence of an accent generates suspicion and hostility. Moreover, there was no indication in the video that the Latino/as were not just visiting the US, nor did they do anything differently from “how people live” here in the US. Actually, people in the US — as well as Mexico and elsewhere — do not all live the same and do things the same way, nor should they be expected to.


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