Why When They See Us was the third most searched TV series on Google in 2019
Our biases towards coloured people reflect who we are.
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In a highly prejudiced world, many of us live with unconscious prejudices. We remain oblivious to them until one day we are jogged out of our slumber only to realise there is a cost attached to prejudices. It is paid by the people we hold biases against. That cost at times could be as high as human life.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that Netflix series When They See Us was received so well by audiences across the world. It is for this reason, perhaps, that When They See Us was number three among searches for TV shows on Google in 2019.
The series is based on five black men, then children, who were implicated in a rape case and incarcerated for various periods of time only to be found innocent years later, when the actual rapist - a white man - owns up to the crime and confirms 'he acted alone'.
The rape that took place on April 19, 1989, became infamous as the Central Park Rape and the boys assumed a collective identity — Central Park Five.
The New York teenagers, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, were victims of racial profiling. They were arrested because the night the rape took place, they were part of a group of about 30 black and Latino boys who entered Manhattan's Central Park, creating mischief.
Even as the boys were busy robbing and troubling runners and cyclists, an investment banker named Trisha Meili was in the park for jogging. She was raped, beaten and left for dead. Meili survived with a broken skull and extreme loss of blood. The head injury led to a partial loss of memory for Meili, who had no recollection of the sexual assault on her.
The police subsequently picked up many black boys who they believed were at the park when the rape happened. They bullied and intimidated the boys into accepting a crime they never committed.
Korey, the fifth boy, simply accompanied his friend Yusef to the station before being pulled into the interrogation.
The boys retracted their statements once they received legal representation but that didn't help in saving them from the punishment.
Suddenly in 2002, the Central Park rapist Matias Reyes confessed to his crime. The DNA test confirmed him as the rapist.
The case was settled for US$ 41 million with the four men getting US$ 7.1 million each and Korey receiving US$ 12.2 million. That settlement could never get back the five men their life as they knew it before April 19, 1989.
The investigation officer's line is haunting, "Every black in the park that night is a suspect. I need all of them."
That night, like all other nights, there were white men too in the park but the New York police, supposed to have the best forensic investigation tools at its disposal, decided to zero in on the black men merely because of the colour of their skin. Because the prosecutor-investigator had a deep-seated bias against blacks.
The four-part series served as a shocker because it showed how the entire case was one built on racial profiling. From the investigators to the courts to the public, everyone declared 'black men' as the culprit, demanding death penalty for them.
On May 1, 1989, Donald Trump, then a real estate magnate, called for the return of the death penalty in full-page advertisements published in all of the city's major newspapers. He never apologised to the 'Central Park Five'.
Racial profiling is any action undertaken for reasons of safety, security or public protection, which relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, or place of origin, or a combination of these, rather than on a reasonable suspicion.
The stories of these men struck a chord because this was no isolated incident.
In 2016, Aaron Cody Smith, an Alabama police officer, shot a man named Greg Gunn, who was on his way home.
A study conducted by Rutgers University sociologist Frank Edwards found that one in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers.
But racial profiling is not just an American problem.
In 2014, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Somnath Bharti was involved in carrying out midnight raids at the residence of African nationals. The midnight raid was carried out over the complaints of the locals over the allegations of a prostitution racket being run in the area causing trouble for the residents.
In India in 2017, five African students were assaulted in Greater Noida after a candlelight march in memory of class 12 student Manish Khari, who died of suspected drug overdose.
The men were suspected of having supplied drugs to Khari. The mob attacked them, calling them 'cannibals'.
Our fear of people, who live and look different, especially if they look black, makes us guilty of perpetuating stereotypes that have no foundation whatsoever. And then these stereotypes are used as licences to brand people as criminals.
When They See Us compelled the audience to take a long, hard look at how they see people who differ from "us" in look and lives. It was after the series that the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, was forced to quit job at Columbia Law School. Amid an outcry generated by the series, Columbia University's Black Students Organisation had set up a petition asking the school to fire Lederer.
In an editorial published in The Wall Street Journal, Lederer lashed out at Ava DuVernay, who made the series for Netflix, alleging, "DuVernay’s miniseries wrongly portrays them [the five teenagers] as totally innocent —and defames me in the process."
Lederer is, however, not defamed in the series as she is shown to be raising genuine questions regarding the case, only to be misled by the investigators.
Dual-island Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago is where the series was top searched. It is a country with a primarily black population. This search reflects a culture of shared prejudices. Number 3 on that list is Jamaica.
The related searches included Central Park Five, Central Park — Park in New York City, New York and Korey when they see us, etc.
The Netflix series aroused curiosity in the shocking details of the case, forcing many to feel sorry for the five men.
This Google search is reflective of people trying to make themselves aware of profiling people on the bases of race. It reflects a coming to terms of their own biases.