Confronting Racism in America

Customers see deli clerk make racist comments and all have different reactions.

December 30, 2008, 4:37 PM

Jan. 5, 2009— -- It was 6:30 a.m. on a Friday in downtown Linden, N.J., when two Hispanic day laborers were struggling with their English as they tried to order a coffee and a sandwich at a deli.

But rather than getting served, they got a string of insults hurled at them from the clerk behind the counter. Their broken-English request for food was met with a barrage of racist remarks, including, "Get back in your pickup truck with the rest of your family."

This scene wasn't real. It was all part of a "What Would You Do?" experiment designed to find out what action, if any, bystanders would take after watching the men's exchange with the clerk.

Seth Perlman, the manager of All Aboard Bagel and Deli, agreed to ABC News' using his business to test people's reactions to bigotry. The racist cashier standing next to him was an actor hired by ABC News, as were his victims.

Here in this working-class neighborhood 15 miles west of New York City, people have a reputation for tolerance. But, sometimes, the reactions were far less open-minded than one would expect.

In the face of blatant discrimination, many people seemed immobilized, some too stunned to react. After being turned away by the cashier, one of the day laborers asked a nearby customer for help. She suggested that he try another store down the street. Many other customers had a similar reaction, quietly walking away after being solicited to help.

Although some customers seemed indifferent, others were quite willing to let everyone know exactly how they felt.

Upon hearing the cashier's racist attacks on the day laborers, customer Darick Maxis, a black man, seemed to take the side of the clerk.

"If you want me to make you leave, I'll make you leave," he told the Hispanics. "So leave. That's all I gotta say. Leave!"

When ABC News' John Quinones approached the scene and let him know the exchange was a television experiment, Maxis continued his rant.

"You know what I think?" he asked. "I think they're taking our jobs because we ain't got no jobs."

But, later, Maxis said that he regretted what he'd said and was simply caught up in the heat of the moment.

'I Don't Speak Mexican'

It is a complicated situation for some. There are an estimated 117,600 day laborers in the United States.

One of those workers is Mario Rodriguez. He wakes up at 5 a.m. seven days a week and walks two miles to a spot on the side of the road in Freehold, N.J., where he and 30 to 40 other HIspanic men hope they'll get picked up for a day of work.

Rodriguez, who speaks little English and said he has felt the sting of discrimination, watched as the deli customers reacted to the racist cashier. The lack of empathy for the Hispanic actors brought Rodriguez to tears.

"There are some places that don't want us there," Rodriguez told ABC News. "When we go into a diner, sometimes they won't even sell us a sandwich."

Wanting to see if women got reactions equally as strong as their male counterparts, "What Would You Do?" sent two Hispanic women into the deli to buy coffee and a bagel the next day.

As with the Hispanic actors, one customer at the deli agreed with the clerk, telling the women to speak English or go to Taco Bell before saying, "Can't help you. I don't speak Mexican."

But not everyone shared the cashier's sentiments and allowed his prejudice to go unchecked. Many were outraged.

"How do you know they're here illegally?" customer John Barnicoat, who is white, asked.

Others grew so angry that they left the store in tears and vowed never to return. One customer was so shocked by the clerk's behavior that he became determined to set him straight.

"If you can't deal with this country and how we accept other people, you don't belong working here," he told the clerk.

For some, the cashier's comments struck a personal chord.

Joanne Murphy, like many Americans, comes from a family of immigrants. So when Murphy, who is Irish-American, heard the cashier refuse the Hispanic women service by saying they weren't Americans, her response was passionate.

"Neither are my parents," Murphy said, shouting.

Merlange Rene, who is Dominican and Haitian, said she has experienced similar prejudice, even being told to go back to her own country.

"I have family that can't speak English," she told the cashier. "They're not here illegally."

Respect for Everyone

For others, the scene in the deli violated the idea of treating every human being with respect.

"Give them what they want," Walter Orenczak said, after hearing the cashier accuse the day laborers of taking American jobs away. He is white.

"They are human beings and they want to eat something," he said. "And you know what? Nobody wants to do their jobs."

El Salvador native Sonia Contreras said the treatment of the people had nothing to do with where they were from.

"God sent them to Earth like you and me, and they have rights to be in this world," she told the cashier. "Leave the laws to the people who make the laws."

Over the course of the "What Would You Do?" experiment, 88 people came into the store. Of those, 49 didn't get involved at all and nine sided with the cashier. Thirty customers came to the defense of the day laborers.

The scene at the deli came at a time when Americans are very sensitive about losing their jobs and immigrants are concerned for their safety.

Last month, two Ecuadorian men were viciously beaten walking home from a bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. One died days later, after being taken off life support.

And in November, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcello Lucero was stabbed to death on New York's Long Island by a group of teenagers who allegedly set out that night to kill a Hispanic person. Seven teens were charged in Lucero's death.