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Serial Is Racist… And Brilliant… And I Love It!

Is Adnan Syed a murderer?

Did the State of Maryland prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Adnan Syed is guilty?

These are two very different questions, and they provide irresistible tension on the wildly popular podcast, Serial. The show details and considers the mystery surrounding the death of Hae Min Lee — a Baltimore teenager who went missing in January of 1999. Detectives working the case followed tips and information that led them to a former classmate of Lee, a young black man named Jay. Interviewed by detectives, Jay told the police his friend and Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, killed Lee, then asked him to help bury her corpse and hide her car. As proof of his involvement in the crime, Jay directed the detectives to Lee’s abandoned car. Adnan Syed, a popular, over-achieving Muslim Pakistani-American teenager, was arrested for the murder of Hae Min Lee.

The state’s prosecution was built primarily upon Jay’s testimony. After two trials, Syed was found guilty and sentenced to life. Since day one, he has maintained his innocence. His former friend, Jay, insists Syed is lying. Either Adnan Syed is a killer and a sociopathic liar (like the talented Mr. Ripley), or he is an innocent man, wrongly accused and imprisoned (like The Shawshank Redemption). But this is not a movie. This is real life.

As a podcast, the show is entertainment; as journalism, it’s the story of real crime and real people who still live in America. The curious narrator of the show, writer and journalist Sarah Koenig, compares the arc of the story to Shakespeare — and she’s not being grand. To me, the gut-level appeal of Serial hinges on one simple question:

What matters more to you… that Adnan Syed is proven guiltyor that he may be a murderer?

Each episode, Koenig makes her audience debate this intersection of morality and ethics. Serial examines and re-examines this case in an attempt to discover the truth; while congruently, the show weighs the case anew on the scales of justice—only this time, in the court of public opinion. This sort of intellectual civic engagement through storytelling is rare, and Koenig’s presentation is genius. The podcast is nonpareil. It’s a thing of beauty. And, as many critics have pointed out, the show is racist as Fox News.

Fox News, very conspicuously, uses race to tell its stories. In their treatment of Officer Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown, they switched the line of questioning from, “what reason did an officer have to shoot a suspect to death?” to the 180-degree opposite, “what did the suspect do that made the officer shoot him?” One question places the onus of responsibility on the officer, the other places it on the murdered suspect. This switch in perspectives obscures the racial stereotypes Fox plays into, speaking in coded language their viewers understand. And Serial does the same.

Seemingly, Sarah Koenig is no conservative—but she has her biases. For instance, her well-meaning liberal hesitance to view a Muslim American as violent suggests that, to her, his “big cow eyes” don’t look like those of a murderer. This is, of course, just as dangerous and simple a thought as Darren Wilson believing Mike Brown looked like a demon that might kill him. Unlike Fox News, Koenig is a responsible journalist who calls herself out and correctly labels her bias as idiotic. But what she never calls herself out for is how she’s willing to question the testimony of a black teen, looking for every possible reason to doubt him—much the same way Fox News casts their doubts on Michael Brown. Without Koenig’s doubt in Jay, there’s no show.

Yet, unlike Fox News, I love Serial. Why? What’s the difference in their use of race to create a narrative? Well, for one, Koenig and Serial engage in intelligent journalism. But more to the point, no one can escape a bias until they’re aware of it. We all have our biases. I certainly have mine, and Koegnig has hers. Here’s how they create blind-spots for Serial.

In the 19th minute of Episode 4, “Inconsistencies,” a question raised by both the police and Koenig is why the star witness, Jay, never goes to the police, or calls to let them know someone is trying to force him to hide a murder. That seems suspicious. Jay explains in an interview with police:

“…So if I go to the cops and say, ‘Hey, this guy is gonna kill her.’ And, he’ll say, ‘No I’m not. He’s crazy. But there’s this drug dealer and this is where he gets his shit from and this is who he deals with — and he’s got a rap sheet this long — and go get his ass.’”

The police don’t buy this rationale for Jay’s choices. They conclude there must be something else at work. They point out his rap sheet isn’t that long, he primarily has a pot bust on his record — not exactly a hardened criminal. Jay further explains his relationship with cops:

“…Well one time. On the records — one time. But I got my ass kicked plenty of times. More than that one arrest. Plenty of times. Dogs sicced on me. Frisked out in front of my own house with fucking guns pointed. With helicopters and shit. With my keys in my hands. You know what I mean? It’s not, it’s not just, you know, I mean, seriously, man, I come home and people whipped out guns and made me lay in the street in the snow — walking in my house — just so they can say that I’m the wrong dude? You know what I mean?”

The police attempt to clarify these events:

“These are police that did this to you? So, you didn’t trust any police?”

Jay is quick to answer:

“No. …I don’t. In my mind I don’t think — to the presence of let’s call the cops. It’s never — that never crosses my mind. I could be getting shot at and I wouldn’t be — Let’s call the cops.”

To this line of reasoning, Sarah Koenig and the cops both wonder:

Well, then why didn’t you make an anonymous call while you’re driving off the Best Buy parking lot?

This is where even a well-meaning liberal’s biases often run into logical trouble when attempting to understand someone else’s experience.

You only know what you know.

Your imagination is limited to what you know. You take from what you know to create the things that could be. Alien costume designers in Hollywood have to imagine unknowable creatures and, to do so, they borrow from creatures on Earth. It’s very difficult to imagine life based on parameters we’ve never known. So, our aliens look humanoid, or insectoid, or like a combination of the two. But rarely do they look like an amoeba that talks. To the cops and Koenig, what Jay is saying is like listening to an amoeba talk.

In minute 23 of Episode 4, addressing the fact Jay’s story changes slightly every time he tells it, Koenig admits, “I have a struggle with Jay. He’s the biggest mystery of this whole case for me.”

Jay’s decisions and his shifting stories make perfect sense to me. I have been Jay. I listen(ed) to Rage Against the Machine. I have dyed hair. I was the black kid who people hit up to help them with their criminal activities. To the kids who were my society, my peers, I was dangerous; I knew how to do criminal things. I also knew, when and if any shit went down—like, if someone died—I could never go to the cops and have them believe me. If anything, I could assume through blundering and bias that the cops would implicate me in the crime, as they seemingly wanted to do to Jay. If guys like us go to the police, it’s likely we’ll become suspects. Jay’s story changes because he doesn’t feel he can tell the truth.

The well-meaning liberal, when faced with this same predicament, asks, “Why don’t you just make an anonymous call?” Seems logical. Seems simple. But to a lot of people, it also sounds like, “Why don’t you shed your identity to deal with the police?” That never seems to occur to Jay in that moment, or to me in the past, or to millions like us. Not every black person has this response to the police, but I believe Jay when he claims he did. We’ve been trained to think our identity can never be obscured, or anonymous. That is something we know. Thus, we don’t imagine reaching out to the police. You only know what you know.

As many have pointed out, Koenig has spent 300 hours in conversation with Adnan Syed. She’s done her due diligence to understand him and his case. However, neither time nor proximity guarantee greater understanding. It’s not a mechanical equation where x effort produces y understanding. As much as Koenig has a reporter’s attraction to Adnan Syed’s case, she also likes him as a person. That’s understandable. The same thing can be said of Truman Capote and the subjects of In Cold Blood. It happens. But that’s the point. We should expect bias in a person’s perspective. This is not an absolute failing on their part.

Other writers, such as Julia Carrie Wong, showed with sharp analysis that we all have our biases that determine how we view the case. Wong’s criticism of Serial focused on the representation of the Asian-American experience, whereas I gravitate toward Jay. He’s my entry point. Based on my bias, I understand Jay, so I believe Jay, which means I think Adnan is lying, which means, to me… obviously, he’s the murderer.

The moral question posed by the show first grabs listeners on the level of a whodunit mystery, but the ethical questions ask us to look above and beyond that to consider:

Could Adnan Syed be a murderer and still be wrongfully imprisoned?

That’s an astounding question to ponder. Many listeners feel that may be exactly what’s occurred. At the moment, Syed’s case is in appeal.

Personally, I believe the State of Maryland failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Syed’s guilty. And I also think Adnan Syed murdered Hae Min Lee. But I mostly think this because I inherently believe a young black man, and his suspicious decisions make sense to me. This is how race jumps into the intersection of morality and ethics in America. To me, Jay’s testimony is unassailable. That may not be the case for you.

Imagine if an old white lady, like the school librarian, testified that she heard Syed say he was going to kill Hae a few days before Lee’s disappearance and that, days later, Syed showed her the body of Hae Min Lee stuffed in the trunk of a car. Imagine that she, not Jay, was the star witness. Everyone would believe the old white lady librarian. And we’d have no show. American racism holds this debate of justice together, bound by an ugly tension.

Listeners can doubt that Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee because a young black man is telling a shifting story. The State points out the power of this doubt in their closing arguments for the prosecution. They argue that Syed asked Jay to help him hide his crime because he knew Jay’s involvement would create wiggle room for “reasonable doubt.” The illusion of race still makes everyone question Jay as a witness. That forces us to consider some heavy-duty questions about civic engagement.

Everyone in the podcast, everyone making the podcast, and everyone listening to the podcast is attempting to make sense of their perspective, but only two people know the truth: Adnan and Jay. The rest of us are limited by our biases, left to ponder some of the deepest questions of our society. Serial may be racist, but it asks us to stare into the dark heart of America, uniting us all as listeners and citizens. In light of the recent grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, an intelligent, widely-discussed examination of the American criminal justice system, like the one prompted by Serial, is not only vital — it’s absolutely necessary.

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Zaron Burnett III

writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts