Verdict Illuminates Racial Chasm Blacks And Whites Understood Trial Differntly
The O.J. Simpson verdict illustrates a paradox of America’s tense racial climate. He lived in an exclusive white community, married a white woman, golfed at white country clubs, didn’t crusade for black causes and yet was suddenly transformed into a symbol of racial justice.
“He became every black male who’s ever been involved in the criminal justice system,” said Wilbert A. Tatum, editor and publisher of New York’s Amsterdam News, one of the nation’s most prominent black weeklies. “It was the black male in America who was on trial.” And yet, Tatum added, “He was more of a success of white America.”
For many African Americans, Orenthal James Simpson is a high-profile surrogate in the ongoing battle to address their grievances with the nation. It is a time, for many, of souring race relations, of cutbacks in social programs, of political and court assaults on hard-won civil rights gains. And so Simpson’s acquittal represents for some a psychological victory.
“The verdict is clearly a reaffirmation of black public opinion,” said Democratic pollster Ron Lester, citing surveys throughout the trial indicating that blacks overwhelmingly believed he was innocent. “It kind of confirms that there truly can be justice in America, and that is counter to what most blacks generally believe about the criminal justice system.”
Yet, Simpson was no ordinary black defendant. He had money to defend himself, status to demand special treatment. And he hardly had the profile to become a civil rights cause celebre.
“It really wasn’t about O.J.,” said Elaine Williams, a black barber in the Crenshaw district in South Central Los Angeles. “It was about everything that has happened over the years to black people in Los Angeles.”
She echoed the sentiments of other residents of that neighborhood, and indeed, other blacks across the country.
As to the question of guilt or innocence, “I think people fell on both sides of the issue,” said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I don’t think that all blacks necessarily felt he was innocent. … I’m not celebrating. It’s still a tragedy. Two lives were lost.”
And yet Tatum noted that in Harlem on Tuesday - as occurred in some neighborhoods in Washington - people honked their horns, cheered and applauded the verdict. “There was something historic about this,” Tatum said. “It displays an already open wound that America refuses to deal with - and that is racism.”
Should anyone forget that, Tatum added, they should be reminded of a call to the newspaper’s switchboard 15 minutes after the verdict: “There’s going to be a whole lot of dead niggers and those at the Amsterdam News are first.”
Whether the verdict will exacerbate racial tensions is in dispute.
“Initially, yes,” said Frederick Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who has written widely about diversity issues. To a lot of whites, Lynch said, the not-guilty verdict “will sort of confirm their worst suspicions, whereas a guilty verdict would have made people kind of sit back and say, ‘Hmmm, maybe things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe people can step back and assess the evidence independent of race.”
Lynch said the trial had high lighted race and gender questions, and that the verdict is likely to create fissures in some liberal coalitions. “Feminists wanted this trial to be a show trial on domestic violence and the race radicals said, ‘No, this is another frame-up of a black man.’ And so in a sense, race trumped gender.”
Amid the shouts of joy and cries of anguish, many hoped that some good could come out of such a divisive trial. Payne said the black caucus will push for hearings to examine racist attitudes by police officers that were showcased by the Mark Fuhrman tapes.
Some suggested there needed to be a national truce called before things get out of hand. “Listening to radio talk shows, it’s definitely an us vs. them situation,” said Emma Rodgers, co-owner of one of the nation’s largest black book stores, Black Images Book Bazaar in Dallas. “It’s going to require a lot of healing, by community leaders, by church leaders, by political leaders.”
And of O.J., she said, even a gridiron hero who put distance between his race, who committed for some the taboo of marrying white, can be embraced all over again.
“We’re quick to forgive,” said Rodgers. “African Americans are a forgiving people.”