Monday, February 2, 2015

There Is Nothing Casual About Prejudice: “Serial” And the Stories We Tell

by Guest author Anita Sinha, practitioner in residence with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University's Washington College of Law.

 Like millions of others others, I was an avid listener of the podcast “Serial.”  Its “one story told week by week” was the true story of Adnan Syed, who is serving life in prison for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

 Adnan is Pakistani American, and Hae Min was Korean American.  Their identities prompted some to say the podcast was an “immigrant story,” and criticize host Sarah Koenig for not getting many aspects of this narrative.  I agreed, but did not think it compromised host Koenig’s role as a storyteller – until I neared the end of the podcast.

In Episode 10, Adnan’s mother tells Koenig that she believes her son was convicted because he is Muslim.  Surprisingly, Koenig immediately responded that she did not believe her.  Koenig seemed to retract by stating that prejudice may have “crept in…advertently or inadvertently.”  She then gave examples of prejudice present throughout Adnan’s case, and exclaimed one can “stir stereotypes into facts, all of which gets baked into a story.”

 But then Koenig downplayed the injustice that can come from such sordid story making, stating: “Reporting this story I found plenty of examples of casual prejudice against Muslims.”  As an example, she presented former jurors’ claims that while they had stereotypes about Adnan’s religion, it “didn’t affect their view of the case.”  However, Koenig stated that when she pressed, it seemed “stereotypes of Adnan’s culture were there, lurking in the background.”  She played two jurors’ interviews explaining that assumptions of Muslim men’s misogyny influenced their peers. 

That Koenig identified how stereotypes were present but then dismissed this as “casual” is troubling.  Casual prejudice is not an actual phenomenon.  It is not a defined phrase or term of art.  There is, however, a proven concept called “implicit bias,” and it is part of our national discourse after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other civilians of color killed by police officers.  Referring to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner,” we are learning how implicit bias plays a role in police brutality.  There is the language in Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony describing Michael Brown as a “demon.”  There is a report revealing that police perceive Black men to be less innocent than their White counterparts, and also older than they actually are (the officer who killed twelve-year-old Rice thought Rice was twenty).  A Washington Post article flatly declared, “across America, Whites are biased and they don’t even know it.”

Koenig invokes “casual prejudice” to cast the bias of jurors and others as not dispositive.  It is not clear how Koenig is so certain, but her characterization of the bias as “casual” calls into question her credibility.  In my opinion, she never restores her credibility.  Prejudice is conscious, or it can be implicit.  It is pervasive.  Prejudice in the U.S. incarcerates and kills people of color at disproportionate rates.  What prejudice is not is casual.

 A previous version of this blog was published in the Huffington Post.

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