Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Racial Apathy

Nene's link to the article about people harboring less than virtuous attitudes towards races which they may not consciously or publicly espouse brought up an interesting point. When speaking about theoretical scenarios, people often attempt to give a politically correct and evenhanded response as to what their theoretical response would be. However, this response is often different from the way that a given person actually responds when things are actualized.

As an example, it seems fitting to invoke the Kitty Genovese case. On the morning of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered over the course of half an hour - outside of her Queens, NY apartment complex. In addition, no fewer than 38 of her neighbors actually saw the attack or heard her screams. Over the course of the half hour her assailant left twice, frightened that the neighbors were going to intervene. However, upon seeing that no one stepped outside to help Kitty, he resumed his violent attack. How is it that scores of people could witness a gruesome assault and yet do nothing to help? The answer is a unique effect called the Bystander Apathy Effect , in which bystanders do not react because of a few major factors. The first factor is that often bystanders take their cue from others around them, and thus do not act differently. Another factor for the apathetic bystander is a basic feeling of diffusion of responsibility, in which a given individual feels that since there are so many people to help, his personal aid is not required (and thus not given). Obviously, these two factors culminated in a gruesome manner for Kitty; however I believe that these factors are also at work aiding tacit racism which still carries on today.

The apathy of bystanders greatly reminds me of an idea which has gotten so big in America, that of a "post-racial" country. This is because of some good spinning by corporate media and playing up of various buzzwords. I believe that NeNe's article shows exactly why it is that racism is so thorny: it doesn't negatively affect most people, and certainly not to the extent that something would actually be done about it. Those who benefit from white privilege have no real inclination or incentive to step in and help out by being vocal about racial issues. People espousing racist views who happen to be white are often simply written off as "rough around the edges" or a bit crude, but the truth is that the comments which people are comfortable enough to make in public are often only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial views. And yet there is no general push by the "good and decent" of America to clear up these misconceptions about race and attempt to keep an open dialogue about it. It is quite interesting that things such as genuine race relations are never on party platforms, rarely talked about in schools, and probably can't even be clearly articulated because there is a barrier of convenience which has been built up around the topic. This is the bystander apathy effect, as applied to a people in denial about what truly goes on in America.


  1. Colin, I completely agree. Often individuals may be entirely aware of the problem that is plaguing our country and just do not want to make any type of effort to address it as having direct correlation with their lives. It has too often been said amongst students in the same classroom that I have been in, "One of my friends was discriminated against here at Rhodes." Yet, when asked how the individual felt about it or what they did to hold the offending persons accountable, many simply replied, "I thought it was sad," or "People shouldn't still be behaving this way." The reality of the matter, though, is that people SHOULD be behaving this way. As we talked about in class, the perpetuation of this train of thought has been sustained for far too long for us to believe that people will sporadically make a change in cognitive perception or no longer be victims of Bystander Apathy or diffusion of responsibility. I guess Alain Locke was onto something when he said that the way that culture is maintained is through culture heredity because this is what seems to have come of "American culture."

  2. We all certainly have self-preservation in mind, so the Bystander Apathy Effect makes sense evolutionarily. This is not to say the effect is a good one, but the solution to this problem may lie in a better understanding of why we feel the urge avoid conflict.

    It is obvious that certain individuals over time have sacrificed their well being in order to help others, but they have usually done so in order to promote their values or culture. How one can convince others to stand up against racism, I do not know, but I'm sure it is rooted in convincing others that their values coincide with those of another race.

  3. Colin,
    I think your posts hits on some really important ideas. It reminded me of some of Dr. King's ideas from the famous letter from a Birmingham jail, which argued that the greatest roadblock to racial progress in the United States was not vehement racists, but rather the white moderate sympathetic to the ideal of racial justice and civil rights, but unwilling to take radical action in order to enact social change. His 50 year old prognosis seems to still be a powerful commentary on 21st century American race relations; the notion of a post-racial America is less so a sign of progress, rather than a means by which to stifle progress.

  4. I believe that part of the problem is with individuals’ readiness to accept things as they are. They seemingly believe that it is enough to simply hold that they, themselves, are tolerant and therefore they can safely avoid taking part in messy situations involving the slightest bit of racial tension. It is easier and more comfortable to merely possess a vague sense of indignation when up against situations involving “mildly racist” situations like when the discrimination isn’t obvious. In these cases people can claim to be unaware of it or not take part in it because they are “tolerant”. The tolerant don’t have to take part in every fight for equal rights because they are already doing their part by being “tolerant” of different groups of people. It is too messy to address racial issues so we let those topics slide. Without taking such topics head on however, we are allowing the problem to remain.

  5. I agree completely with Kimberly's comment regarding Dr. King's insight in his letter from a Birmingham jail. I would argue that it has gotten worse in the way that many people believe that since we have made drastic strides toward racial equality (especially with the election of a African American president), the need for conversations about race are no longer needed. Those who were classified under "moderate sympathetic Whites" are now those who make claims that race is no longer an issue. This can be linked back to the Bystander Apathy Effect's argument that people would prefer to avoid conflict. Its like being able to see and smell smoke, but refusing to acknowledge the danger of a fire because you can't see the flames. This ultimately leads to tragedy and in the case of race in the United States, has the potential to further divide the Nation on a touchy issue.

  6. I really like everyone's points on this post. The idea of racial apathy is really interesting to me considering how far our nation has come in the last fifty years. To think that only a few centuries ago it was socially acceptable to murder African Americans if they looked at you in an incorrect manner, we should be proud of how drastically our national mindset has changed. However, there is still progress to be made. We should be constantly attempting to move forward and get rid of the racism that still exists today. There are no lynch mobs anymore, segregation is not something that minorities have to necessarily deal with, but that does not mean racism and injustice does not exist. I feel like our society is so complacent with where we are, and to be honest, where we are is an incredibly mediocre version of where we should be. There are still injustices regarding race that we have the potential to stop. Racism is a learned mindset and it's going to take time to completely erase. However, the apathetic mindset we are in has led our society to a standstill. Despite the fact that obvious forms of racism have been eliminated, we must continue to work towards eliminating all forms of racism and prejudice, perhaps more on a personal level.

    I know that all sounded very vague, but I think we can all fill in the blanks as to what constitutes as racism and injustice. In fact, I'm sure all of us are confronted with these issues, either directly or indirectly.

  7. I have to completely agree with Colin about white privilege making it easy for so many American's to not forced to recognize the presence of racism and racially-based disadvantage. For one of my classes, we had a simple task - we were given a list of basic items (bandaids, makeup, toys, a magazine, books, etc.) and told to go to a convenience store and attempt to find these items that would be appropriate for someone with dark skin. For the items we could find (which was about 2/3) we were asked to compare the costs with equivalent items for whites. The project was very eye-opening. Just the fact that we couldn't find a third of the items that would be a targeted for black consumers was surprising, especially combined with fact that all the items for black consumers were more expensive. Of course this is all the more shocking considering that the Walgreen's we went to was a short ways from Rhodes, in the middle of the majority black city of Memphis. Until I engaged in this task, I had never even realized how disadvantaged blacks were in even the simplest thing that we take for granted.
    Yet, it is the small majority of white-Americans who have had experiences that would open their eyes to this. When talking about white privilege, we are talking about the fact that whites don't have to think about themselves as white because the society and culture that they live in here in the US caters to a Caucasian citizenry.
    Great points Colin.


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