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9 February 2022

A new instalment of This American Life uncovers racism in the US police force

“A Couple Walks Into a House” tells the story of how a real estate viewing revealed the twisted private life of an officer.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Please forgive me for reviewing an episode of This American Life, which has surely been one of the most recommended podcast series (and before that, radio programmes) on the planet for well over a decade. But two recent episodes racked up even more than the show’s usual five million weekly listeners. The story ran over consecutive hour-long episodes: in the first, “A Couple Walks Into a House”, Rob and Reyna Mathis go with their children to view a property for sale in their hometown of Muskegon, Michigan – with dramatic consequences.

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As they walk through the kitchen, the couple notice a Perspex chopping board that contains an image of the Confederate flag inside. Rob and Reyna, who are black and Mexican-American respectively, raise their eyebrows at each other and continue the viewing. They spot Confederate flag after Confederate flag hanging in different rooms around the house. They see pictures on the wall of men in uniform, and realise this is the home of a police officer. Then, in one room, Rob sees something unambiguously, shockingly racist hanging on the wall – something that disturbs him so much he insists his entire family leave immediately. Even the estate agent is shocked: through tears, she apologises profusely and tells Rob and Reyna the name of the officer who owns and lives in the house.

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The Mathises agonise over whether to make a complaint about what they’ve seen, and eventually decide they are duty bound to go public with their experience. A viral Facebook post, a media storm, community outrage and a controversial investigation into the record of the officer ensues. It even emerges that Rob and Reyna, though they didn’t initially realise it, have had a traumatic encounter with this very policeman before. This is a twisty and complex story about institutional racism in the US police force, told with all the deft pacing, attention to detail and sensitivity to human character that This American Life is known for.

This American Life
Aired 23 and 30 January, now on catch-up

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game