Charles Ramsey’s Heroics Marks Progress
America has spent the last few days reacting to the story of three women who escaped their kidnappers after a decade of imprisonment and sexual abuse (see here). Much of the attention has rightly focused on the perseverance and return of the victims but there has also been a lot of commentary about Charles Ramsey, the man who initially responded to one victim’s cries for help and thus became an initial responder when he helped her to escape and call 911. Much of the interest in Ramsey certainly revolves around his shall-we-say vibrant personality and many have simply followed for a good laugh. However, I like to think that a great many more have followed because they are assured by the presence of a modern-day hero and the prospect of fellow community members looking out for one another when in need.
Some folks I have spoken with don’t see anything particularly heroic in Ramsey’s actions. As they see it, Ramsey’s response to cries of distress was simply something that anybody would have done. As someone that has spent most of his professional career in anti-violence positions tasked with challenging people to become active bystanders in preventing violence, I think that Ramsey’s response was anything but routine. Consider that there is now several decades’ worth of social psychology research attempting to determine exactly why people are generally so horrible at intervening in questionable scenarios. This includes scenarios when people have fairly good awareness that another person or even themselves is in danger. It’s not necessarily that people don’t care what happens to others. It’s more so that beings raised with societal customs can generate all types of valid reasons why they should mind their own business. For example, someone in Ramsey’s shoes may have heard screaming and thought “this is a domestic dispute”, “this is probably someone playing a prank”, “they might get upset if I interfere”, “I’m sure somebody else would be running over there if there was truly a problem”, etc. Ramsey, who did no less than kick in the door of his neighbor’s house, fought through these hesitations and erred on the side of caution. Three victims of longstanding abuse (four victims considering that one had a child present) are now free because of it.
It’s easy for all of us to say that we would have done the same in Ramsey’s position but I know that many of us would have convinced ourselves that it was not worth sticking out our necks based on the mere possibility that someone was being harmed. If Ramsey’s actions still seem unremarkable consider the furor around last year’s news of long-standing sexual abuse by a member of Penn State Athletics where a community was severely lacking for someone with instincts similar to Ramsey to act on what their reason and suspicions were asking them to do. Ramsey is indeed a hero.
Interestingly, Ramsey notes the victim’s race as key in his identification of the incident as an emergency. As he states in a now-infamous interview, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty White girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead Giveaway.” In 2013, this man found some novelty in the idea of a female White victim seeking assistance from a Black man. The realization that viewpoints like Ramsey’s still exist makes me pause to consider the historical significance of what occurred.
I cannot help but flash back and consider how my predecessors might view this whole thing with similar astonishment. I picture a Black man in the American South of the late 1800’s. He has memory of family member being hunted and lynched under the charge that he was a rapist though the man has his doubts and believes that the folks in town targeted him because
he got too “uppity.” He can recollect stories told by elder family members bound to slavery under the lash and the argument that they are a bestial people that must be subjugated if their better nature is to surface. He has knowledge that full citizenship is denied to him partially on the grounds that men that look like him lack the moral base to be trusted with such rights.
If this man could peer a century ahead, he must surely receive some vindication and joy in the knowledge that a Black man rose to meet the distress of a victim of sexual abuse. Sometimes, the historical significance of events is lost to us so I’m thankful that Ramsey’s choice of words gave me further reason to celebrate. First and foremost, I applaud because three women have survived a horrible ordeal and are now able to go about the process of recovery in earnest. I applaud secondly because, even though we have uncovered yet one more story of men displaying humanity at its worst, perhaps this incident will generate some attention towards domestic sex trafficking which is too often considered a strictly overseas problem. Lastly, I applaud Ramsey who, in one swoop, provided America with the strongest model of bystander activism in recent memory and provided me with reason to reflect on just how far America has progressed. With all of the World’s ugliness, it’s easy to forget that we have indeed progressed for the better in many ways. So, you all can join the chorus of superficiality currently running with Ramsey as a punchline if you like, but the human appeal and racial intrigue raised by a man who chose to help after finishing his McDonald’s is not lost on me.