The Disunited States of America and the Bystander Effect

The 800 pound gorilla marries the pink elephant

Posted Jul 19, 2016

When I became a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of 16, I didn’t realize the enormity of the privilege I was given upon my swearing in at the Federal Court in Manhattan in 1983. I was pretty astute socially and politically for my age, but I was pretty much and would remain to be a big kid at heart. I always believed in the best of people even though I was exposed to my share of human character at its worst.

Google Images
Source: Google Images

I was five years old when I came to the United States from Guyana and was quickly enamored with three things: television, potato chips and cup cakes.  I quickly learned about the evils of racism and the hatred for the pigmentation of my skin, the thickness of my lips and the shape of my nose from my classmates. I was one of two black children attending P.S. 160 on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NY circa 1972.

The other black classmate was also from the Caribbean. He was from Trinidad and we quickly became best friends for every obvious reason in the book.  We both had thick accents and shared the struggle of embracing this new culture called Brooklyn. Although the cultural landscape was emblematic of the United States, the enormity that was Brooklyn was all we could grasp within our young minds.

On a daily basis we were teased and called names like “dirty skin” and “monkey.”  I vividly remember being the subject of racially charged jokes and jeers by one group while the more reserved bunch watched, listened and eventually burst into hysterics. They would seemingly trade positions like good cop-bad cop as they asked me questions about what it’s like to live in the jungles of Guyana with Tarzan. I found humor in this miraculous display of geographical awareness when most of these potential Rhodes Scholars couldn't tell the difference between Africa and South America, let alone find them on a map.

The Promise of America

I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come around so I could get a respite from the ignorance and mean-spirited behavior. One of my favorite weekend departures from the norm was television and lots of it. I learned this culture and how to quickly lose my accent by mimicking the pronunciation of words from watching the evening news. My favorite TV shows were Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, Flip Wilson, I Love Lucy and The Carol Burnett Show.

The biggest treat of all was the fact that my mother worked the late shift as a Registered Nurse. Her work hours gave me the opportunity to stay up beyond my bedtime watching science fiction and horror movies like Bella Lugosi as Dracula. I loved watching the fictional account of the distant evil that came and stayed anonymously among unsuspecting people and would strike in the dark of night.

Unbeknownst to my youthful naiveté of art portraying life, there have been similar atrocities that have happened to real people in real life, where a very real evil existed and would strike certain people while no one came to their rescue. I learned that I was already experiencing a form of this evil, but in a much more diminished expression compared to my contemporaries who preceded me prior to the civil rights era. 

Is This What We've Come To?

During my sophomore year in high school shortly before I became a naturalized citizen, I enrolled in a civil law class where I first heard the quote from Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  I learned of the story of Kitty Genovese which brought this quote to life in a chilling way. Furthermore it gave me great insight into another evil that shields racism and allows it to grow anonymously.

Google Images
Source: Google Images

In Kew Gardens Queens, New York, back on March 13, 1969, the life of 28-year-old Catherine Susan Genovese, or better known as ‘Kitty’ Genovese, was snuffed out in a way that would seem merciless even to Bella Lugosi's Dracula character. Ms. Genovese was on her way home at about 2:30AM from her late night shift as a bar manager. As she parked her car near her apartment building she was being stalked by 29 year old Winston Moseley.

Moseley snuck up behind her and stabbed her twice in her back with a hunting knife. Ms. Genovese screamed out “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!"   At that time of the year it’s still cold in New York, so windows of neighboring apartments were closed and it would be difficult to decipher screams of help on the street below. But these blood curdling screams eventually pierced window panes. Residents started to turn on lights and peer through their blinds to see what the commotion was all about.

According to eyewitness accounts to various newspapers and police reports, one or two witnesses called out and temporarily scared off Moseley. Sadly he would only drive off to change his disguise to return searching for her and finding her lying barely conscious in a hallway. For approximately 30 minutes Moseley carried out his brutal attack on this woman and eventually raped, robbed and left her for dead.

During this time no one called for the police. It wasn’t until almost two hours later some brave neighbors eventually came down to try to comfort this neighbor who had been battered and bleeding. Kitty Genovese died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. She probably would have lived to tell of her amazing story of survival had she received medical help sooner.

Source: Google Images

It turns out that Winston Mosley was a known serial killer, rapist and burglar who would randomly pick his victims. According to police reports there were a dozen witnesses who watched the whole thing and did nothing because as they later collectively stated, “I didn’t want to get involved.”  The New York Times printed that there may have been as many as 37 or 38 witnesses who saw and did nothing to help. Police reports later refuted those high figures as false.  When apprehended Moseley was asked what gave him the nerve to feel he could get away with such a crime in front of so many people and his reply was, "I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do."

The Kitty Genovese story has had far reaching implications and similarities to our nation’s headlines in 2016. Behavioral and social scientists John M. Darley and Bibb Latané have initiated studies on the behavior of these witnesses and yielded the term The Bystander Effect which is now taught in law schools and in police academies worldwide. This phenomenon states that when there are larger crowds there is less likelihood that someone will come forward to help the victim of a crime especially when they see no one is doing anything about it.   

Another implication of the Genovese story is it was also a catalyst of moving from dialing “0” for emergency assistance to the “911” central command model used today.  

In today’s 24-hour news cycle I wonder how this story would have been reported based on the facts given. Would the race of Ms. Genovese and the monster who murdered her be an issue? How about the fact that she had a same sex domestic partner she was going home too?

Let’s take a stretch and go back to my childhood fascination with vampire movies. What if God-forbid such a series of science fiction-like murders were to appear. Would there be much emphasis on the supposed racial or lifestyle profile of the victims and supposed perpetrators? The point I’m making is in the Bella Lugosi classics, the vampire was the evil and disbelief was his cloak and disguise. In the case of Kitty Genovese, the spirit of evil  drove a homicidal maniac and the apathy or fear of the neighbors and the greater society was the cloak and disguise for the perpetrator.

Public Images
Source: Public Images

Today in our nation we have an obvious social evil that has been interlaced within the fabric of the stars and stripes of our flag that we all hold dear to our hearts since Betsy Ross' creation. I can use a myriad of metaphors and platitudes to capture the chord of commonality we all know as that evil. So my question is, what is the actual disguise that cloaks the conduct and wipes the fingerprints from the crime scene of this evil's monstrous work within American society?

Some may see this social discomfort as the problematic distant relative whose mischief and cold-hearted behavior disturbs the peace with their occasional and prolonged visits. Each time they leave, the household adapts more and more of their behaviors.

Upon each attempt to rein in the relative for the terror they bring upon the children and grandchildren, they adamantly remind all in attendance that they not only own the land you live on they also built the house you live in. This unimpeachable reality brings tears that sting the eyes as you try to refocus on any semblance of what you thought was peace and normalcy only to find that for the first time your eyes have actually been opened to reality.

Dr. Martin Luther King Said, “to lose illusions is to gain truth.” Now you must reconcile the fact that you have been the one who has overstayed your welcome in a self-projected rationalization of the fact, the Emperor is indeed as naked as the day he was born.

Now the truth is out and you come face to face with this evil that your neighbors have been well aware of since you moved in. What now? We can no longer say that the atrocities that have been going on behind closed doors in our own home have been myths and urban legends. As our family has grown and diversified by marrying in to other ethnicities and cultures, we can no longer say that those screams behind closed bedroom doors “are not any of my business; let those people handle their own affairs.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, we as a nation are one body and the Bystander Effect cannot apply here. There is an evil that has manifested itself as a cancer and it began as a terrorist cell that has organized and taken over parts of our body. It has morphed into something that doesn’t even look like the rest of our body. It’s grotesque and it smells; and like any unsightly malady such as leprosy, we tend to hide it, ignore it and hope no-one brings attention to it.  Although the so called healthy parts continue to deny the spread, the reality is, the cancer won’t stop until every thing healthy is consumed. Denial and treatment are not the cure.


Truth can be the extra strength pain reliever or the sledge hammer to the forehead. Some people are emancipated by truth while others are instantly stunned and rendered unconscious and useless to social consciousness and progress. Our nation is a great super power filled with promise, hope and opportunity. These were the values that sponsored my mother who brought me here as a child from Guyana.  But lurking behind the bright lights of the U.S. stage is the phantom called racism. The rest of the world has known this fact since our nation was built.

Much like the Bella Lugosi character of Dracula, the evil called racism will either instantly kill you or slowly bleed you dry of your integrity and eventually your life. If you are faced by it head on and try to stare it down, again like the Dracula character, it will capture your mind, anesthetize you and render you harmless in one way or another. You quickly realize that this evil has been in existence for millennia and has been formulated virtually to perfection.

The spiritual vow from our founding fathers has created a remnant of divine promise on our land that has given great favor over its existence. In our darkest moments those vows have brought us stalwart leaders who have championed for the good in light of our historical evils such as Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  President Johnson enacted the civil rights amendments which gave blacks, women and disabled Americans - legislation to galvanize our initial foothold on being “One nation under God.”  Today we have puppeteers behind the scenes who anonymously challenge this notion and desire to compromise this foothold even if it takes another generation to accomplish it. Their wager is that in the words of monster that killed Kitty Genovese, “…they wouldn't do anything, people never do.”

Is the Choice to  Exercise Racism a Psychological or Social ill?

King Family Archives
Source: King Family Archives

In September of 1967, a 37 year old Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the national convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco. In his speech to these academics Dr. King shared his heart as to the pliability of interchangeable blame for the plight of blacks in our nation. He challenged these social scientists to wade into the stormy waters of the race discussion that was tossing and tearing our nation apart. He explained the mindset of the black nation and the history and agenda of slavery back to the Jews in the bible. He called for studies that would initiate legislation highlighting the fact that mental illness on both the part of the oppressor and the oppressed could be the reason this dysfunctional relationship continues to flourish.

Dr. King also warned that unless this nation seeks a remedy for this evil so that we can peacefully enjoy the benefits of a diverse unified culture, there could be a revolution.

Today we are nearing the end of the second term of our first black president. As celebratory as this notion has and should be; the proverbial pot spoon has stirred up that bitter evil called racism once again that has been pushed to the bottom of our so called “melting pot."  At the writing of this article July 13, the New York Times has just released a poll that states that 70% of Americans feel that race relations are bad in this country. This is an all-time high in over 20 years.

But as history will show, racism is as fluid as a lava flow; it never goes away, it just erupts from time to time which is indicative of its systemic existence. With the advent of social media and its ability to go viral with the technology of camera phones, we as a nation body, again I say, can no longer claim the privilege of the “Bystander Effect.” The world, the flag and the God we pledge allegiance to are watching how this family handles its affairs.


As in the cure of any cancer, one must identify the cause so that if applicable, a lifestyle change can be addressed immediately.  The type and aggression of the cancer is diagnosed and the modality of treatment is determined.  In the case of this cancer called racism it begins in the subtle guided teaching of one’s environment. As children playing in the proverbial sandbox, we don’t see ethnic differences but as we become more sophisticated we either adapt to treatment by people or segment, label or respond respectively. Often times subtle societal and familial cues on racism are introduced as we begin to segment and label, thus affecting how we respond.

Source: Shutterstock

As an individual who has been in ministry and communications for 30 years, I am now able to frame childhood memories with the right color hues. One picture I recall was moving to a predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn when one of my new friends who is of Jamaican decent had a cross burning in his front yard in or about 1979. Another vivid personal recollection was being insulted by drunken white males on the long walk home from school during the New York City Transit strike of 1980.

At times that taunting grew to a foot chase as they threw their empty beer bottles at me. As an American, a father and ordained Elder, my hope is that these stories and many far more heinous will become a faded picture in our nation-family’s scrapbook. But my fear is that things may get worse before they get better.  My knowledge of biblical, world and American history dictate this notion.  I am married to a white woman from the Midwest who is a former catholic and of polish descent; we see first-hand how our nation truly feels about racial diversity.

Our children are 15, 18 and 19. We live in the South  and have been married for 11 years. Our blended family consisting of my two sons and her daughter has made for a very interesting commentary. Facing the societal winds of adversity has given us new and deep dimensions of character and maturity. Our children have become Ambassadors for our nation’s future. We’ve taught them the principles of adaptability, acceptance and  a strong spiritual foundation.


Istock Photo
Source: Istock Photo

 Revolution occurs when desperation meets opportunity. Most revolutions require bloodshed, but a revolution from within just requires commitment and courage. A path forward is needed or we all die. Once again denial and treatment are not the cure. So far, we as a nation have had much conversation, but conversation thus far has been treatment. Bringing those shameful familial conversations to the public venue and eradicating the speak of generational curses has remnants of a cure. From my experience as a teacher, talk show host, producer and communicator, I offer these suggestions as a path forward. My desire is not to offend anyone so I apologize in advance if any of these truths offend you.

My experience is that truth merits no reward, nor does it dignify a response. Truth is unimpeachable, therefore absolute.



You must first come to terms with the fact that we are spirit with a body and not the other way around. Spirit has no color or prejudice. If you are made in the image of God and you first really love Him with all your heart, body and soul, you cannot really hate or desire to oppress anyone based on how they look, where they are from and how they vote.


We have heard the adage that there are three sides to a story; yours, mine and the truth. What is your truth that you’re hiding or hiding behind? We all have an issue that filters the way we think, speak and select. Maybe it’s a generational curse or cycle that you inherited. No one says that you have to bear your soul to the world. But rest assured, that truth is shaping your life in one way or another. My belief is that truth will never lie to me and will always be consistent. He will never be late; he will always clean up after himself: she will never talk about me behind my back: truth is my best friend because she is always there to remind me who I am despite what others say about me.


If everyone in your contacts list looks like you, thinks like you and votes like you then you are a part of the illness.If persons unlike you are only associated with one aspect of your life like work or a service industry then you should consider asking to be a part of their personal life. Start by breaking bread together on neutral territory. If you have no one in your contacts list unlike you we will address that later.


This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Heads of state and leaders who visit or are trying to mend or further the relationships of countries bring a gift before they start discussions. Your gift need not be extravagant at all. In fact the more practical, thoughtful or simple the better. It can be a $5 scarf if it’s cold outside or an inexpensive picture frame if you know that they are family oriented.


Your first meeting is to get acquainted not to eradicate and set policy for immediate legislation. You simply want to discover common ground such as quality of living, safety and well-being of self and family. If you are both on social media, become friends or follow each other first. Try to research potential social trends of possible interest like music (old and new school), television (old and new school) historical accounts, literature, sports, theater and a spiritual belief system; even if it starts out that you are both devout in your faith or lack thereof. As the adage goes, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. So be sincere, they will know it in your eyes and body language.

Google Images
Source: Google Images


Take the chance and believe in the fact that good overcomes evil and love overcomes hate.

Take the plunge and invite this person into your world by bringing them into your life the way you would anyone else you have gotten to know with identical values and packaging as yourself. Taking this chance may impact others in your sphere of influence to do the same. But be prepared that this new truth that you have evolved to may not set well with those around you who are not as accepting. That decision is then yours. Your spiritual orientation will be your guide.


Here is where you introduce your new friend into how you got to where you are and how you would like to change. At this point, if you are both sincere it will flow naturally just like it did when you were both kids playing in the sandbox.



The Butterfly Effect is a concept coined by Edward Lorenz that is used in physical and social science interchangeably. This states that in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Whether you believe in the electoral process of this nation or not, you must give credence to the fact that engaged votes put the first black man in the white house who was not a staff member or the help. He was elected as the President. Elected officials are hired by your vote to serve in your best interest. If you are unhappy with how you are being represented then fire them. Get involved with the grass roots movements for change and stop complaining and start campaigning for the change you want. President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t enact the Civil rights amendments as a result of a whim. It took years before he was forced to. Our upcoming presidential elections will literally determine the fate of our country. Get involved!


Google Images
Source: Google Images

Ensure your local leaders such as police chief, school board, council member, commissioner, alderman and other civic groups are held accountable by writing letters  and  showing up at public hearings to voice concerns. 

Participate and/or be present for tenant board meetings, HOA meetings and votes. If you do not make your thoughts known then you will become an afterthought. One voice is never too small but always a start.  Dr. King and Gandhi caused a revolution without ever raising a gun or a fist.These same principles can apply in the work place by using wisdom and professionalism in accordance to your company’s guidelines.


We as the human race are not segmented by four or five races; we are a race of people derived from many nations. The level of pigmentation in your skin and your ability to speak the Queen’s English does not denote your level of intelligence. The term race was created to segment and separate people like breeds of dogs.  Our nation’s constitution and leadership has had longstanding conflict within as to what is right versus what has always been done.

Some of our nation’s forefathers knew that this divisive evil called racism would impede the development of our young nation. It was Abraham Lincoln who said in his biblical scripturally based House Divided campaign speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”

Source: Dreamstime

About 75 years earlier during the height of the slave industry a young Thomas Jefferson, the principal writer of our Declaration of Independence said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

In the economy of time compared to our neighboring nations and cultures around the world that have existed for hundreds and thousands of years, the U.S. is considered the spoiled rich teenager. This adolescent is considered overweight, wastes food and has a blatant disregard for life and traditional family values. As time and wisdom would have it, his careless and immature lifestyle has caught up to him. Now the tables have turned. There was a time when the U.S. seemingly held our own socially while atrocities in the news were always those nations over there and we watched their suffering from the comfort of our couches of indifference over here. Now those distant nations are watching our national family imploding within after years of reckless living.

As for the Christian faith, I speak as an educator whose purpose is to teach about the God I believe. So for the religious conservatives please understand this: the modern evangelical church has a malignant branding and identity issue.  Jesus is a Lord of Love. For God so loved the WHOLE WORLD that HE GAVE…  The term Christian that we throw around as a spear and shield against those who don’t seemingly follow every letter of God’s law --- has no meaning without the spirit of its purpose, LOVE. Jesus came along because the Jews weren’t able to keep the law either. 


The term Christian was never used by Christ or His disciples. Christ referred to His followers as disciples. He and His followers never uttered the word Christian. Disciple means follower or student.  The term Christian was given to us by Agrippa in Acts 26:28 as an ethnic slur. The term Christian was then used as a coat of arms that spoke to the religious zealots and maniacs. Later in the 11th through 15th centuries so called Christians waged a Holy War throughout Europe and the Middle-East to regain the integrity of the faith and land rights.

Source: belfastchildis

Over one million people lost their lives. Christians were referred to as Jihadists or what we call terrorists today. To add insult to injury, during the height of the slave trade a Christian evangelist by the name of Willie Lynch was brought from the British West Indies to preach to the slave owners his mastery on how to break and make a slave. This methodology is a tactical plan on how to turn blacks against each other and mentally make them dependent on whatever system the slave owner choose. Even critics of this notion have legitimized claims that these teachings resemble the fundamental pillars of the evil in this nation called institutional and systemic racism today.

According to most studies including the U.S Census, Pew Studies and a more recent ABC poll, approximately 75 to 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. So if this 'nation-family' really espouses itself to  love God and His Son Jesus Christ, let us be careful how we compare ourselves to the letter of the biblical law but rather endear ourselves to the Love that fulfills the law. If you are a Disciple of Christ, a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Orthodox, Hasidic or atheist, please understand that at the end of the day, we all want the same things. The same way we can receive and give blood to all ethnicities, our Spirit can love and be loved by the same.


We all want to feel loved and appreciated and that we and our loved ones are safe and protected. We are all Spirit with a body so in order to get to that final destination we must first condition our mind that is also our soul on how to be prepared to exist there.

Hatred, police brutality and prejudice are lies that are taught by a manifestation of evil. That evil can also manifest in mass murder, mass suicide, rape and burglary. Listening, believing and following these lies will not get you into Heaven or Paradise. It will only create a personal hell while you are here. Choosing racism is like drinking poison and waiting for the oppressed or the oppressor to die. 

If your phone’s contact list or if your company’s partner or vendor relations repertoire signifies no form of diversity then I strongly suggest that you challenge yourself before the presence of your God. Ask yourself if your life or business model reflects the transparency of His love and unobstructed unconditional acceptance of humanity.

Anywhere in the bible that you see the name God or Jesus you can substitute the word love and the sentence will not lose its meaning. Love is the only expression that can overcome lies, hurt and evil.


Istock Photo
Source: Istock Photo

Finally, I challenge the electronic media conglomerates to band together to embrace ‘A Unity Project’. I've been trying to push this concept since 2010. I propose the major networks and NPR broadcast one message, on one day at one time from the same venue to teach the following: the success of the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement could not have been possible without the colorless love and conscience of all who sacrificed to make these pivotal markers in history to occur. It took black, white, male, female, young, old, Jew, gentile, gay, straight and the physically challenged to cause the wheels of change to turn. The concept is simple and is economically and socially rewarding for all involved. 

I am a firm believer that the will of God will always prevail. Throughout our brief history He has allowed  the conscience of this ‘nation-family’ to raise the foot of the spirit of evil and oppression to release  the brakes that hinder change. These wheels can once again move freely forward. We just have to do it as a family.

About the Author

Sean Cort is the author of The Power of Perspective and an ordained minister.

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