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.