There Is Nothing Casual About Prejudice: The Popular Podcast 'Serial' and the Notion of Implicit Bias

Like millions of others, I have been an avid listener of the new podcast Serial. Its "one story, told week by week" is the true case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of and is serving life in prison for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Host and executive producer Sarah Koenig analyzes the evidence and lack thereof, transcripts of the interrogations and two trials, and presents recent interviews of witnesses, former classmates, family, jurors, and Adnan himself. Koenig seems to genuinely vacillate between believing Adnan is innocent and guilty, and early in the podcast she invites listeners to start paying attention if we want to solve this mystery with her.

Adnan is a Pakistani American, and Hae was Korean American. The racial and cultural identities of the protagonists have prompted some to characterize the podcast as an "immigrant story," and to criticize Koenig for not grasping many aspects of this narrative. While I agree with this analysis, I did not think it ultimately compromised Koenig's role as an effective storyteller. That is, until I heard Episode 10.

About five minutes into Episode 10, Koenig is interviewing Adnan's mother, who tells Koenig that she believes her son was convicted because he is Muslim. I was surprised to hear Koenig say right away that she does not believe her. But then Koenig seems to take a step back by stating that prejudice may have "crept in" and contributed to the way the case was investigated and prosecuted, "advertently or inadvertently." She goes on to provide striking examples of gratuitous, suggestive, and plainly stereotypical references to Pakistani or Muslim men. I began to forgive Koenig for immediately dismissing Adnan's mother's perspective when she seemed to get the harm of this prejudice, exclaiming that one can "stir stereotypes into facts, all of which gets baked into a story."

But then Koenig downplays the injustice that can result from such sordid story making. About 15 minutes in she says, "Reporting this story I found plenty of examples of casual prejudice against Muslims." Koenig goes on to cite comments by Adnan's former teachers and interviews of some of the jurors who voted to convict Adnan. As for the jurors, Koenig presents their claim that while they had stereotypes about Adnan's religion, it "didn't affect their view of the case." However, Koenig states that when she pressed, it seemed for some of the jurors "stereotypes of Adnan's culture were there, lurking in the background." She then plays recorded interviews of two jurors who explain that views of how Muslim men treat women seemed to play a part in how some saw the case. Nonetheless, Koenig switches to discussing Adnan's defense attorney and describes the amount of time the attorney dedicated in the opening statement to explaining Adnan's religion and culture as "nutty."

The fact that Koenig identifies how racial and cultural stereotypes were present in Adnan's case but then dismisses this as "casual" is frustrating and 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 currently part of the national discourse in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other Black and Brown civilians killed by police officers. Referring to "the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner," many are pointing out how implicit bias plays a role in police brutality. There is the dehumanizing language in Darren Wilson's grand jury testimony describing Michael Brown as a "demon" and "Hulk-Hogan like." There have been discussions about a report released earlier this year revealing that the police perceive young Black men to be less innocent than their White counterparts, and also older than they actually are (the officer who killed 12-year-old Rice thought Rice was 20). A Washington Post article this week discusses an implicit bias study and declares that "across America, Whites are biased and they don't even know it."

Koenig uses the concept of casual prejudice to cast the biases of jurors and other key actors in Adnan's case as not dispositive -- that it did not ultimately impact the outcome. It is not clear why Koenig is so certain, but her characterization of the prejudice against Adnan as "casual" calls into question 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.