Encouraging a Community of Proactive Bystanders

Not all acts of discrimination and harrassment are overt or intentional. Some even occur due to the lack of an action, such as when someone is a passive or silent bystander in the face of discrimination based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This often happens in a group setting, where individuals experience a diffusion of responsibility when among others. This can lead to otherwise well-intentioned people being inherently complicit in an act of discrimination.

In an effort to avoid these instances and continue to build a Drew University that is truly welcoming to all, we must be a community of proactive bystanders—intervening and helping those being discriminated against not just in theory, but in practice, in the moment, regardless of our surroundings.

In an effort to model the type of behavior we are encouraging, we have included the following account written by Dr. Brian Russell, a professor of computer science at Rutgers and the husband of a Drew alum. Below, Mr. Russell details experiencing the consequences of both an act of racial profiling, and the subsequent inaction of several passive bystanders during a visit to a campus building in 2019.

We hope this narrative serves as instructive of what can happen when we are not proactive bystanders.

Thomas J. Schwarz

I have a story for you.  This is not about some far-off place. In fact, the events I am about to recount all happened less than an hour’s drive from my home in New Jersey.

I enjoy writing. Writing is an exercise in organizing my thoughts, but the effort of organization also helps me to process events. A major portion of this story happened just this morning and I thought today, March 8, 2019, would be the end of it. I may be wrong about that. Even if there is more to this, I decided to write about this much of it anyway, since I had resolved to do so well before today. My wife, Susan, and I are both still processing today’s events and this story may be something you will want to process as well.

It began on January 4, 2019. Susan wanted to go to her alma mater, Drew University, to see a Frankenstein exhibit. It seemed like a pleasant thing to do, so I went along. The exhibit wasn’t much; there was too much Karloff and not enough of the Creature in my opinion. After some time at the Frankenstein exhibit, Susan wanted to get a new alumni card. She’s very proud of being a Drew alumnus and was looking forward to getting a new alumni card.

The big old house in Madison had been repurposed who knows how long ago into its current function as part of the University. The house was very boxy, two or three stories high, an old architectural style designed to protect against harsh winters. We went in through the front door, happy to escape the cold. The entry led into a hall with doors on both sides of the hall. The different doors led into offices and conference rooms of various sizes.

We found a nice woman who could help us in the first office on the right. There was some considerable back-and-forth, including a new photograph for Susan’s alumni card. I was bored and wandered out of the office, intending to see more of the inside of the house. I do things like that; I tend to explore, as some of you probably know. I was wearing a Columbia jacket that very effectively keeps me warm in cold environments, but does not overheat indoors. I was also wearing my watch cap.

I walked down the hall toward the back of the building. The only other sound came from the last door on the left. There were some women in a conference room, in the midst of some meeting.  I stopped near the end of the hall, a few yards from the conference room. The woman nearest the hallway door had her back turned toward me. I had no interest in their meeting and largely turned my back on them. Their discussion was distracting to me, so I mentally tuned it out as I took in this new place and looked for a stairway to go upstairs. I stood there silently, unmoving.  A couple minutes passed and then the woman nearest the door turned around and said, “Can I help you?” in an unnecessarily loud voice.

As you read her words here without tone or inflection, they seem innocuous enough. Taken literally, they seem like an offer of assistance. What I have not conveyed is the tone and subtext of what she said. The tone was obnoxious and clearly hostile. This was not a welcoming offer of assistance, there was a deeper subtext and the question was not an offer, but a demand.  

Some of you may not understand until now, but there is a recognizable subtext that Black people know because they have heard it all too many times. The subtext was “You do not belong here. This is my space, not yours. I demand that you explain yourself to me at once”. Some of you reading this are White and may be unfamiliar with this. I have had my own experiences like this and I assure you that this subtext is very real and does occur with some frequency.

This verbal irritation coming out of nowhere annoyed me a bit. Still, I knew that I might be wrong about the possible hostile subtext. I took a second or two to formulate an answer that handled both the possible subtext and the literal interpretation of the question. I turned my head and said “No” in the same volume and tone used on me. There was a subtext in my response: “You do not control this space. I have every right to be here. You have no authority over me. I do not owe you an explanation. I want no further communication.” I then turned my back fully on them to show that I had no further interest in them. I may have taken a step or two in an unconscious desire to move away from the irritant. For however rude my response was, I make no apologies for it. Remember, I only said one word.

I mentally shrugged off the woman’s rudeness and thought I had ended the matter efficiently. I returned my attention to my immediate surroundings. There was a tray of cookies and a coffee machine on the opposite wall. A welcoming touch for visitors, I thought. Too bad I don’t drink coffee.

I was still standing there when some instinct caused me to turn around. I turned in time to see the door to the conference room slowly close and latch. I learned later that it was locked.

Well, that’s damn peculiar, I thought. Not inconsistent with the rudeness inflicted on me, though.  I shrugged that off as well and ate a cookie. I reconsidered the idea of further exploration. I had no desire to encounter someone in another part of the building and get the same treatment. Better to go back and check on Susan.

I returned to the front office after having been away for just a few minutes. Susan and the woman were still working on the alumni card and chatting happily. Neither was aware of what had happened down the hall. I said nothing about the incident.

The business with the alumni card was wrapping up. I stood there waiting in the little office. Too bad the Frankenstein thing had been a bit disappointing.

A few minutes later, the police arrived.

Two cops, one thickly muscular, the other thinner. They were speaking into shoulder radios, reporting that they were on scene. There was unmistakable urgency in their movements. They were looking for something. No, they were looking for someone. Then it hit me: The women in the conference room had called the police. They were looking for me.

This was a potentially dangerous situation. Recent events in the news set a precedent for this belief: Cops shoot an innocent man to death at a routine traffic stop. An innocent girl at a public pool is tackled by cops. A schoolgirl is physically thrown out of her desk by a cop for refusing to obey some minor order. The common element in these incidents was that the cops were White and the citizens involved were Black. The same was true here. I didn’t want to become the lead story on the six o’clock news.

From my vantage point in the front office, I saw the cops but they did not see me. I had to deal with this and I chose to meet them on my own terms. I stepped into the hall. The cops were looking in other rooms and testing closed doors. They had not noticed me. I leveled my voice and said, “Is there a problem here?”

To their credit, they did not respond aggressively. The thicker cop said, “We got a report of a man in a hat”. Read that again. Not “a man with a gun” or “a man with a knife”, but “a man in a hat”. I have quoted him here literally. Maybe it was just me, but the word “Black” seemed conspicuous by its absence.

“Maybe you want to check with them”, I said, pointing to the closed door down the hall. “They’re the ones who called you.”

The thinner cop identified himself and knocked on the still-locked door. There was no response and the door didn’t open. The cops closed on me. They wanted to know what I was doing in the building, which was open to the public at the time. They got too close for my comfort. I tried a new tactic:  announcing my social status to show I wasn’t a threat. “I am DOCTOR Brian Russell, a professor of Computer Science at Rutgers University,” I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. I hated throwing my credentials in their face, but it seemed to work. The tension level went down a bit.

I can’t say exactly when Susan saw what was going on and came into the hall. She had heard some of this and accused the cops of racial profiling. “This wouldn’t have happened if it was my elderly White mother”, she said.

The thicker cop did not take this well. He closed on her and told her that what she said was reprehensible. Apparently, her accusation was a greater concern than any threat I presented, as he turned away from me to argue with her. I felt the beginning of anger toward the cop. Anger wasn’t going to serve me here, so I pushed it away.

The emotions between the Susan and the cop were escalating rapidly. Continued escalation would not end well. I had to deescalate this situation immediately. I said, “The cops are just doing their job. They got a call and had to come.” This seemed to calm the thicker cop down. The cops turned their attention back to me. They wanted my address and driver’s license. I gave them my license, an action that I soon regretted. The thick cop started writing down my information. I asked what he was going to do with it. He said something about adding my name to something like “a list of people involved in incidents on the Drew campus”. Oh great, I thought. They’re going to put me on a suspicious characters list. The cops made no move to get the identification information of the women who called them.

Another actor in the unfolding drama appeared:  A woman I had not seen before. She started to apologize for what happened but kept following every apology with something about recent active-shooter response training. So she must have come from the conference room, I figured. I had only glimpsed two other women in the conference room. She kept apologizing and explaining. The whole “I’m sorry, but…” tactic was something I’ve seen before. The talk of active-shooter training seemed like an attempt to explain away the whole thing to get me to accept what happened and nullify any culpability on their part. I wasn’t buying it.

I did what I could: I offered to forgive her. It took a few attempts because she wouldn’t stop talking. She quieted down after a bit and the two of us got out of there.

I initially considered us lucky that no one (especially me) got hurt. I didn’t like having to announce my professional credentials to escape the possibility of violent removal from the building. What happened was wrong. The more I thought about it, the more I decided we didn’t have to take it.

Over the next several days, Susan composed a letter addressed to the president of the university. The letter demanded a full face-to-face apology from the women who started all this. They upset my wife and put me in danger. They were going to answer for it. As part of putting the letter together, Susan did some research and CC’ed another official of the University she thought relevant to the situation.

As soon as the president of the university received the letter, she immediately called Susan and readily agreed that this was racial profiling.  She immediately expressed her concern and offered an in-person meeting to discuss what had happened.

Here’s the punchline: The woman who called the police on me that day WAS the same official CC’ed in Susan’s letter. I heard about this from return correspondence originally addressed to Susan. I laughed hard at that for days.

I want to note here that the name and job title of the woman who made the January 4 call to the police have been withheld from this narrative. It may seem odd that I would choose to protect the identity of someone who acted as an aggressor toward me, but my wife and I saw her go through a personal revelation about this matter that we hope has made her a better person.

Susan handled much of what happened next. She had a phone call with the president of the university who had read our letter and was greatly shocked that such a thing had happened at all. They set up a meeting. With various conflicting schedules, the meeting would not happen until March 8. Two months. Justice delayed is justice denied, but it did give me time to think.

On Friday, March 8, Susan and I went to the president’s office at Drew University. We met with the President, MaryAnn Baenninger; Sari Pascoe, Lead Office of Diversity Equity & Inclusion at Drew University and the University official. The other two women, including the obnoxious one who started all this, were conspicuous by their absence. I waited until we had exchanged pleasantries and sat down before asking where they were. I had been ready to deal with them. The answer from President Baenninger was something I had not anticipated: Despite whatever educational efforts or internal confrontations had taken place with these two (apparently considerable efforts), they maintained that they had done nothing wrong in this whole affair. Even worse, if confronted with similar circumstances in the future, they would do exactly what they had done before: Call the police on a silent man standing motionless in a public space.

The President proactively emphasized that these two were not being protected. It was the combined opinion of the President, Sari and the official that they were too immature to attend this meeting. Susan and I could only accept their decision.

The president apologized for the whole incident. I acknowledged that by the virtue of her position, she had to apologize, but she had no direct involvement in what happened, nor did she endorse the actions of the women involved that day. Her apology was necessarily symbolic, but no less important, and we accepted it in the spirit it was intended. In this incident, I was the target (I refuse to say victim), so as such, I was encouraged to speak first.

In the days and weeks before the meeting, I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to say. I had anticipated some combativeness, so I chose to speak more from reason than emotion. Even in this more relaxed atmosphere, I still laid out my case. I argued that this was a series of compounded moral failures.

The first moral failure was the initial hostile demand directed toward me and the subsequent call to the police. No one at the time said anything like “Hey, there’s no reason to speak to him like that. He’s just standing there quietly”. No one said, “Hey, there’s no reason to call the police”, either. The faulty decisions and no one speaking up as the voice of reason made them all equally culpable. 

The second moral failure was that they did not attempt to see the results of their actions. Even after the police had arrived and confirmed their safety, no one came out to see what had happened. I might have been innocent and unjustly injured by the police. They did not come out to see what they had done. They apparently didn’t care.

The third moral failure was that even after it was apparent that I was not a threat and that calling the police had proven humiliating to me, two of the three did not apologize for what they had done. As for the one that did try to apologize, I said that talking about “active-shooter training” was attempting to explain it all away and thus negated any apology.

I said that I was finding my way to forgiveness for all that happened to me, but the incident had greatly upset my wife, and for that, I was far less forgiving. If the missing moral imbeciles had been there, I might have snarled that last part at them. I prompted Susan to say whatever she had to say.

I cannot do justice to what Susan said here. My attention was on the others as she spoke. Susan spoke with some emotion about resenting the feeling that she occasionally had to validate my presence in various venues by being at my side. I saw how what she said affected the others. The official who had made the actual call to the police at the prompting of the other two was in tears. Susan and I learned something from what she said.

Through many wet tissues, the official explained that she had not thought of herself as a bigoted person and that her part in all of this was an unpleasant personal revelation. When I asked why she didn’t speak up at the time, she had no idea why. I have a guess as to why this might be true.

I think there is a variation of the “bystander effect”, where a crowd of people witness some sort of accident and then no one in the crowd does anything to help the accident victim because all of them think that somebody else is going to do something. The victim dies surrounded by well-meaning people.

My guess is a “racial bystander effect”. Take some group of White people and put someone who is Black (or a member of some other stereotypically threatening group) nearby. Even if most of the people in the group are not particularly racist, a single racist in the group might react badly to a perceived but nonexistent threat. The others in the group will not act to correct the faulty reaction, and may even participate in the reaction, even when there is no evidence of a threat, just out of the very slight chance that there might be a real threat.

The poor woman was going through a painful personal revelation as we watched. She did not consider herself a racist, but she had acted like a racist that day. This realization was the cause of her pain. I think this was breakthrough for her and I must give her credit for that.

I also wanted the removal of my name from the suspicious characters list maintained by the Drew University police. Before I could raise the issue, President Baenninger told us that my name had been removed from that list by her order. The record of a racial profiling incident remains.

The meeting ran less than an hour. Susan and I made sure that we said everything we wanted to say. I think we were all good listeners as well. One outcome of the meeting was the mutual promise to continue our new relationship in a constructive effort to stop racial incidents at the university. Susan and I are now connected on LinkedIn with the president of a university, much to my amusement. Of course, we have each other’s email addresses. These outcomes seem a bit remarkable to me, but the outcomes must be some indication of their genuine desire to address this issue. 

I started writing this the same day of our meeting with President Baenninger, Dr. Pascoe and the University official. This official has certainly earned our forgiveness, and I wish her well going forward with what she has learned from this experience.

I am disappointed at not meeting with the other two women in the room that day. Susan and I both had something to say, and we never got a chance to be heard. I suspect we will get that chance.

It has been about a week since the meeting and I remain vexed by a question. It concerns the two missing participants, specifically the two women that started the hostilities and later called the police. There had been some effort to get them to acknowledge their wrongdoing in the events of January 4 in the intervening months, but they could not come to the March 8 meeting because they were still in denial of any culpability in those events. This may be my personal incredulity, but how can they refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of their wrongdoing (or any wrongdoing for that matter) when the President of the University had to step up and apologize for what they had done?

I accept as an axiom that racism is morally wrong. The racial bystander hypothesis suggests that those that tolerate racism may not be racists themselves, but are still morally wrong for tolerating racism when they could act directly to prevent any harm.

There is an interesting side note about the bystander effect: Just telling people about the bystander effect tends to change how people react to accidents and emergencies. They now act, even when they might not have acted before. Knowing about the bystander effect acts as a sort of moral inoculation against it. I hope that knowing about the racial bystander effect acts as a similar moral inoculation.

I am not so naive as to believe that something like January 4 could not happen to me. It has never been a question of if, but more a question of when. That incident and the subsequent meeting with the officials at Drew University have changed me, but in a good way. I am better prepared to respond to the future incidents that are bound to happen. I don’t have to take these things and I may have found a way to prevent things like this from happening to someone else. My resolve has hardened, but not my heart.

You don’t have to let things like this happen and you don’t have to take it.

My best wishes for peace to you all.


Posted by Justin Jackson
Justin Jackson Director of Digital Communications & Strategy