Public Displays of Rage: What Would You Do?

A couple's race seemingly affects how people respond when witnessing abuse.

December 23, 2008, 3:56 PM

March 11, 2008— -- They are among the most compelling stories in the "What Would You Do?" series: angry boyfriends verbally abusing their girlfriends in a park.

They included black couples, white couples, one couple in which the woman was the abuser and the man the victim. All the couples were actors hired by "Primetime," and the reactions to the abuse by unsuspecting passersby were recorded by hidden cameras.

But for the most recent "fighting couple" scenario, "Primetime" added a twist. How would people react if the fighting couples were interracial? What if the abusive boyfriend was African-American and the victim white? Or the opposite: an abusive white boyfriend and an African-American victim? Would people respond and would race be an issue?

"You're scaring me. I need you to get away from me," cried a young, petite African-American woman on a park bench. Towering over her was a tall white man, his voice raised in anger.

"What do you mean I'm scaring you? Sit down, sit down!" he screamed as she tried to stand up.

Some people stopped to observe, but after a moment they walked on. Others didn't even bother to stop. When a man stopped several feet away to watch, he raised his hand as if he were about to say something.

Pre-emptively, the abusive boyfriend cut him short and told him to mind his own business. The man walked away.

But a few moments later, a young woman walked by listening to her iPod. The boyfriend's abusive rant managed to penetrate her ear buds.

"What's going on?" she asked as she approached the couple cautiously.

"Ma'am, mind your own business. We're having a little … " But the woman unloaded before he could finish his thought.

"I'm not going to mind my own business when I see you abusing her!"

She then turned to the victim who looked scared and bewildered.

"Do you want to come with me? Seriously, come. I'll take you somewhere."

And with that, the woman reached for the hand of the weeping victim and escorted her away from the abusive boyfriend.

It was an extraordinary display of courage. Moments later, much to her relief, we explained to the gutsy heroine that the woman she rescued and the abusive boyfriend were actors hired by "Primetime."

"As a woman, I just felt angry," Katherine Underwood told us. "How dare this big guy abuse this woman?"

Underwood said the interracial makeup of the couple had no bearing on her actions.

"It did not cross my mind for a split second," she said. "What struck me most was that she was tiny, and he was really big."

Underwood was one of a number of women, alone and in groups, who came to the aid of the female victim.

"It was amazing the number of women who stepped right into the situation and took action," said Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating, who watched many of the scenes play out from the "Primetime" control van.

"[The women] seem to recognize that … there would have been a terrible cost for not helping and for leaving our actress in a situation that was dangerous."

We then introduced a new couple to the park. Now, the abusive boyfriend was African-American. His girlfriend, the victim, was white. Would women still stop and render assistance?

As a group of women approached the couple, the abusive black boyfriend was yelling at his white girlfriend to leave the park with him.

"Let's go!" he screamed, as his girlfriend held on to the bench.

"Stop, stop! You're hurting me."

The group of women stopped some 20 feet away from the couple.

"Hey! Hey," shouted one of the women. "You want me to call the police?"

"Don't worry. I have everything under control. Sorry about that," the boyfriend responded, but his abuse continued.

As the victim pleaded with her boyfriend to leave her alone, one of the women cringed and covered her ears.

"Excuse me," yelled another of the women. "Take your hands off her! You know, somebody went to call the police, so I wouldn't take her anywhere."

We interrupted the intense scene and informed the women of our hidden camera experiment. They felt good about their group effort, despite their trepidation.

"I definitely think I was weighing in my mind my fear and what was the right thing to do," said Beth Perlman.

Adrianne Meisler said, "We just knew we had to stay there until the police arrived. That was enough to do in the situation to ensure her safety."

Over the course of our experiment we noticed a pattern of mostly women stepping in. We wondered if only women were going to intervene.

Our answer came as a tall jogger approached the fighting couple.

Suddenly, the boyfriend kicked her, just as the jogger ran by. The jogger reacted immediately.

"Hey, hey! Leave her alone!" the man yelled loud enough to be heard across the park.

When the boyfriend stood up to him, the jogger cut him off.

"In no situation do you kick a girl!" he told the abuser.

Concerned the confrontation might escalate, "Primetime" correspondent John Quinones left the control van to inform the runner about our experiment.

While a majority of passersby kept right on going, we wanted to know why David Young, the jogger, made the split-second decision to get involved.

"You make your choices," Young said. "I mean, if I was standing, you know, 40 feet away and had a cell phone, maybe I would have made a different decision. But I was right there, he had just kicked her, so you do what you have to do."

Right after the confrontation, Young said his pulse rose from about 135 beats per minute to around 170.

"So the adrenaline kicks in," he said.

Young was one of few men who intervened with our fighting couples. What kept the men from intervening?

"It was almost as if the men anticipated that there would be some sort of physical fight that would occur," Keating said.

As it turned out, race may have been a factor in terms of who intervened, and with which couple. Over two days of shooting, we noticed that women seemed less inclined to intervene when the abusive boyfriend was African-American and the victim white.

"African-Americans are stereotypically more aggressive than Caucasians," said Keating. "They [passersby] may have been more hesitant for that reason."

The people who intervened with our interracial couples told us that any fear they felt -- and some said they were very scared -- was outweighed by an overwhelming desire to help someone in trouble.

"The reason why people help is complex," said Keating. "We help not only to get a victim out of distress, but we also help to set the world right. Most of us … will work toward that goal and will put ourselves at risk to accomplish that goal."

"When I was able to get [the victim] away, I felt really empowered," said Underwood, smiling and raising her fists triumphantly.

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