What Would You Do? Racism in Public Surveillance

The ABC news magazine show 20/20 features a regular feature (and erstwhile show) called “What Would You Do?” that poses ethical dilemmas and then films them using a hidden camera. This one highlights the stark differences in the way white and African American adolescents are treated in a public park in the northeastern part of the U.S. (Ridgewood, NJ). This seems like a clear case of racism in public surveillance, but watch for yourself and decide. The video is long for digital video at 6:43, but worth watching all the way through:

In this clip, three white youths who are actively engaged in overt acts of vandalism in broad daylight are barely given any notice. After literally hours of engaging in this clearly illegal behavior, someone finally calls the police. Yet, three African American youths – whose only offense seems to be sleeping while black – have the police called on them, not once but twice.

This social experiment illustrates the way that people who would never identify as ‘racists’ (or even ‘white nationalists’) see the world through a white racial frame. Looking through this frame, the white vandals are given the benefit of the doubt (e.g., “Is that your car?”) while the young black men, even while asleep, are regarded with suspicion (e.g., “They look like they’re getting ready to rob someone.”)

Really people, we’ve got to do better than this as a culture. This video and the recent discussion in comments on a previous post about anti-racism makes me think that the time is right for some enterprising DIY-videographer with a commitment to racial justice to start actively shooting digital video like this one to highlight racial inequality. That’s one way we could do better as a culture.


  1. S.L. Toddard

    “This social experiment illustrates the way that people who would never identify as ‘racists’ (or even ‘white nationalists’) see the world through a white racial frame. Looking through this frame, the white vandals are given the benefit of the doubt (e.g., “Is that your car?”) while the young black men, even while asleep, are regarded with suspicion (e.g., “They look like they’re getting ready to rob someone.”)”

    I’m not sure that it’s the attitude that’s the problem rather than the statistical reality these attitudes recognize.

  2. mollamolla

    ^ In regards to S.L. Toddard’s comment:

    When you say it’s about the statistical reality these attitudes recognize, are you referring to crime rates amongst African Americans compared to those of Caucasian young men? If so, I see your point…but I don’t think that is what this experiment addresses. The African Americans were not visibly engaging in any sort of misconduct (unless you are not allowed to sit in a car in that park). The white boys are outside and clearly defacing someone else’s property. The irony is that these things were going on at the SAME TIME yet there were more calls made for the three black boys simply minding their on business than there were for the caucasian boys committing a crime. Statistics aside, there is a clear problem with the fact that african americans are more likely to be falsely accused of something whereas caucasians are rarely going to be confronted in the act of a crime.

    I am interested to see the rest of the video. I don’t understand why it was cut off before they showed what would happen when the African American actors became the vandals. I think that is a very important part of this experiment. Were the police called more when the three black young men committed the crime? I think that would be more telling.

  3. Rosalind

    Also in regards to S.L. Toddard –

    We must also problematize how the “statistical reality” is socially constructed. It’s been proven in studies time and again that people of color aren’t committing crimes at a higher rate or more prone to crime, but that they are being profiled, charged, and convicted at higher rates than whites. So, this “reality” you speak of is constructed based on already pre-existing racist ideals.

    White domination creates the racial demography of the population in prisons and jails to over-represent people of color within them.

  4. No1KState

    Here’s where I’m a bit . . . I don’t know.

    But didn’t Toddard complain about crimethink? And discrimination against whites in anti-racist groups?

    But here, Toddard you rationalize and justify blatant racism? You complain that anti-racism is really anti-white. Does that mean that calling the police on the boys actually committing a crime and not the kids who’re just sleeping is anti-white?

    Seriously. Not being rude. THINK about what you’re saying. Part of the reason white people (and blacks) have a distorted view of black crime is that local news displays black crime more than it actually happens. So would enforcing some sort of regulation that news shows can only have as many stories featuring criminals of different races in proportion to the actual crime rate be “doubleplus ungood crimethink?”

  5. Diallo_Jamal

    “Statistical Reality”?

    The video can also serve to highlight how those statistics are skewed by reporting and enforcement… Drug use whether casual or hard core is largely (statistically) unrelated to race (as per many CDC studies), so if enforcement were reflective then ~65-70% of all arrests for drug possession would be whites. This is absurdly far from the truth yet it creates a statistic that people can then leverage to reinforce their biased view. (Which may in turn encourage greater disproportionate enforcement and the cycle renews)…

    As you saw in the video dozens of people were willing to ignore conspicuous criminal acts oriented towards provoking a response when the perpetrators were white, yet the blacks were apparently preparing for a robbery in their sleep. Do you see how such an orientation may lead to skewed statistics, and a flawed view of reality when we assume that incarceration and arrest rate accurately reflects the rates at which criminal behavior is engaged in?

  6. Illusions

    I would like to see a study done like that where Caucasians were placed in a neighborhood that was primarily another ethnic group. Have a group of three black children beat a car in a primarily black neighborhood, and then have three white children do the same thing. It seems only fair to do the study both ways, so that we could see if there was a bias in the black neighborhood against the children who looked as if they “didnt belong there,” in the same way the black children aroused more response in the primarily white neighborhood. As it stands, it seems to me that people are definitely discriminating, but the design of the program does not tell us if this form of discrimination is exclusive to whites or not. These kinds of videos can also skew the perception of people, in this case into thinking that racism or discrimination against outsiders is something unique to whites. I suspect, it is not. I suspect if the experiment were reversed, and you put the exact same children in the same situation in a primarily black neighborhood, the white children would be the ones catching the most flack.

    • Kristen

      Illusions, I see your point, and I’d be interested to see this other scenario play out. My guess, though, is that the outcome would not in fact be a close match, as you suggest. These kinds of experiments don’t happen in a neighborhood bubble and simply reflect an us-them dynamic. As a society on a very large scale we associate (implicitly or explicitly or both) black males with crime. This stereotype, this association, does not exist in the reverse (white males = criminals), even if you go to a black/Latino/etc. neighborhood.

      • No1KState

        Kristen (not illusions),

        My head is spinning!

        I haven’t read through all of illusions’ comments, so I may be wrong, but s/he hasn’t justified anti-black racism by citing crime rate stats. I’ll give him/her that.

        That said, my head is still spinning!

        Among whites who aren’t anti-racist, do we have two different groups? Those who maintain racism by justifying it and those who maintain racism by arguing whites aren’t the only racist people?

        Here’s why my head is spinning. Anti-black racism is justified by citing the alleged high crime rate. So by that same logic, there isn’t any anti-white racism, at least not because of the crime rate among whites. So why would black people call the police on strange white people in their neighborhood unless it’s to see that the out-of-place white people are okay?

        • Kristen

          No1, I’m a little confused, pardon. I think you’re referencing another post of mine, and in it I was not talking about Illusions specifically justifying racism with crime stats. I was talking about the string of posts on that blog, and other numerous blogs, that used the idea.

          In terms of your “do we have two different groups” question, I don’t know that those two sentiments denote mutually exclusive ways of thinking. I think they’re both strategies – implements in the colorblind racist toolkit.

        • Illusions

          Sorry, I had to add one further comment. I just wanted to clarify that while I DO maintain that racism or using visual clues to discriminate between “us and them” is not exclusive to whites, I am NOT “justifying” it as that word is commonly used. I am NOT saying that visual clues or race is a “just” way to make that determination. I do not believe that, personally. In my own personal opinion, I believe that who is or is not part of “us” (however we define that) should be decided based on an individual’s character, not on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

          For instance, if I define “us” as “people who belong in my house,” I am more concerned that individuals are selected to fall into the category of “us” that I find share my values, level of orderliness, fairness, financial responsibility, etc., than I am concerned what tone their skin is. I think it is naive to think that we (humans) do not play the game of “them and us,” we do, and I would argue we must. But we do NOT have to rely solely on visual cues as to who should be where. We can use more appropriate criteria, such as character, shared values, etc.

      • Illusions

        Kristen, how are you sure that it is about crime? I know that there is a lot of speculation by some here on the crime association, but how are we certain that it is indeed that those black children were singled out because “black=criminal,” and not “black=not a part of this community?” How, what objective data do we have, can we be sure we are seeing the one, and not the other? I come down of the side of, personally, that we WOULD see the black community react more to white children behaving badly in a primarily black neighborhood, than they would to black children behaving badly in a primarily black neighborhood. I would bet money on it, and yes, No1KState, it IS because I am asserting that racism (or distinguishing “us and them” using visual cues of any kind) is not exclusive to white people. And your comment that the only reason black people would call the police if they saw out-of-place white people is to come check on them because they are concerned about their welfare is interesting. Are you agreeing with some others that the only reason people discriminate against blacks is because they are associate with crime? Or no? I dont think it is argumentative fair play to argue both for and against the same issue, if so.

        • Kristen

          Illusions, it IS about an association of blackness with crime because – in the case of the SLEEPING black boys – there were 2 calls to 911 to report possible (read: future) robbery.

    • Illusions

      Only one way to tell for sure, and that would be to run it as I outlined. You are guessing that it wouldnt happen, based on “studies” you havent cited, so I personally cannot examine whether you are presenting evidence, or sheer opinion. I could say, “Studies have shown that people named No1KState are racist beyond all reason,” and what does that demonstrate? In this case, not even my own opinion. And in answer to your further comment, about a random public park, how does the fact that it was selected at random mean that the composition of the neighborhood does not matter? Is that good statistical reasoning? So if I survey ONE person, selected at random, as to their level of racism, would it be safe to then extrapolate their response outward onto all others? Or do you need a certain sample size, in addition to randomness to lend any credibility to your conclusion?

      • No1KState

        You’re new to this site. Regular readers/commenters and the admins are familiar with studies, so I don’t have to site anything. Like, you don’t have to site where you learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two. Right? In that same way, here on this blog, I don’t have to specifically site, for instance, a research that details the things white people say about poc when there’re no pocs around. So . . . You’re right that I didn’t site the studies, but it’s more because I don’t have to in this forum than that I can’t. And no, I’m not. You can just google white bias versus black bias are something if you like.

        No, I’m not saying that the composition of the neighborhood doesn’t matter. I should’ve been clearer. What I mean to say is that
        1 – It doesn’t appear to be a neighborhood park. I could be wrong, though.
        2 – White people make up 70%+ of the general population while blacks only make up about 13%. So parks in black neighborhoods would be not as widespread as one might imagine. And as for statistical analysis, a park near a white neighborhood tells us more about the nation at large than otherwise.

        Now, to your point, the racial demographics of Ridgewood is 84.9% white and 1.6% black. So black people at any public part may be viewed as outsiders. And I didn’t watch the other segments. But
        1 – the “familiar” white kids were committing a crime
        2 – the “unfamiliar” black guys were sleeping

        To a point you made in a comment to Kristen (which I only caught the first sentence or two since it wasn’t to me), you’re right that you’re not “justifying” racism in the way that Toddard is. But not to stand against the current status quo is to permit/endorse current social and cultural racism.

        • No1KState

          Also, I think the point is more that despite protestations to the contrary, whites have some sort of “conspiracy” against blacks. Not that racism exists. Again, I haven’t watched the other segments, but lets remember the black guys sleeping in their car wasn’t part of ABC’s experiment.

          I say “conspiracy” not because you have offered the idea, but that it’s a common way to dismiss accusations of widespread racism. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this – the only way everything anti-racists say could be true is if there were some widespread conspiracy, which since [the white person using this logic] is unaware of any secret meetings, there is none.

        • Illusions

          No1KState, Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My problem with not knowing the studies you refer to is not that I am unaware that such studies exist. I do. I am interested in knowing which ones YOU refer to so that I can evaluate the study design of those particular studies. There are studies for instance that show video games cause aggression, and studies that show they do not. Who pays for the study sometimes has an impact on the study design. The point a particular researcher is hoping to make can also have an impact on the results via the design. For instance, the video shown in this thread is (obviously) not well designed to prove anything. It is interesting, and I am glad to have seen it, but there seemed to be many parts of it that were “leading the witness.” For instance Kristen mentions that there were TWO calls to 911 about the boys sleeping in the car. And she is right, that is what was reported in the video, and repeated several times to emphasize the number. What was mentioned once, quickly, was the fact that the same person called twice. Obviously, the one person feeling the need to call about the boys in the car sleeping is still relevant, but it has more emotional impact to emphasize the “Two calls” rather than “one person,” so they did in the reporting. And, I am not trying to deny that there is racism in this country. Its just that I tend to notice bias in reporting. There is money to be made in racism, funding to be had, books to be written, corporate sensitivity classes to hold, etc., there is motive here to overstate the problem. (Though I am not saying it IS the case) But since there IS motive, one has to be careful to consider all of those factors when hearing the words, “studies have shown,” and nothing more than that. I have a personal and very sincere interest in the subject of discrimination, and racism, and I only want to know the truth. I dont care what it is.

          I also happen to have a strong interest in the fields of study that deal with the biology of human behavior, how evolution has primed us for this or that, so to me, the distinction between “discrimination” and “racism” is an important one, I do not make it to try to justify behavior on the part of white people. It is important to me that we clarify and sort out not only whether the discriminatory behavior exists, but what purpose it serves, (if any) in evolutionary terms, because if it has a purpose, that will impact how it must be dealt with if we are ever to create a more “fair and just” society. Pretending it is someone one “aberrant” or “greedy” or “evil” group of people do will do nothing for us if the tendency to discriminate is a human one. All we will do is what we have been doing, which is create a shifting game of “victim” and “victimizers” where the actors in those roles may change, but the underlying dynamic does not. As I see it, our best opportunity to undo the damage caused by unjust generalizations and discrimination is to understand them, and how they arose, and how they have served us, so that we can take real action to mitigate the damage they also cause to us all. I dont know that it is possible to eliminate discrimination from humans, and if we could, I dont know that we should. Game theory, for instance, seems to indicate that discrimination is necessary. As do studies of altruism and “cheaters” or “freeriders.” (Those who benefit from altruism but dont reciprocate)

          So please do not think because I question the current dogma, that I have less than a sincere interest in the subject. However I disagree that just taking a stand against the status quo is the only option here, and I disagree vehemently that not to jump to conclusions is to endorse it. To me, that would be like planning the overthrow of a corrupt dictator with no plan for who and what we were going to replace them with. Well intended, but not necessarily guaranteed to leave us in a better position at all. There is a third option here, and that is to take a fresh look at the problem, without choosing teams, and to try to get to the bottom of the propensity in the first place. You are preaching to the choir if you think you need to convince me of the damage racism can wreck. I understand it intimately.

          • No1KState

            To take a phrase from someone I had no admiration for at all, “you’re either against the status quo or you’re fot it.”

            Whites who aren’t anti-racist ARE choosing teams. Anti-racism deals with bias against all minority groups.

            I agree that there’s biological/evolutionary components to discrimination/racism. But all too many people either deny racism/discrimination altogether or use biology as an excuse. We can take steps to mitigate the damage discrimination has on racial minority groups.

            Also, it’s not just whites with pro-white bias. Everyone who grows up in the US is taught that maybe with the exception of sports, whites are better at just about everything. I remind you of the “babydoll tests.”

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