Long Division 

The not-so-new split over O.J.

The not-so-new split over O.J.

After last week’s civil court verdict, maybe all those mad hatchers of theories who’ve been hanging out in the O.J. Internet chat rooms will find real lives. Maybe the O.J.-obsessive media will adopt some new, pitiful cause. Maybe Charles Grodin and Geraldo, deprived of their reason for being, would shrivel and die.

Here’s the good news: There’s a chance that all those wishful thoughts may come true—even though we’re still going to have to put up with the inevitable appeals, the new insider books, and all those intriguing speculations that, like half-digested pork ribs, keep reasserting their presence. But there’s bad news too: O.J., like Elvis, isn’t simply going to ride off into the sunset—and not for the reasons you’d probably suppose. The Simpson case we will have with us always, not because of any crime that O.J. may or may not have perpetrated or because of who he is. We’re going to have the Simpson case with us forever because of what O.J. has now come to symbolize.

Even after nearly two years of bloody gloves, barking Akitas, DNA tests, N-word-spewing cops, Bronco chases, and Bruno Magli shoes, I don’t know, absolutely, whether I think O.J. did it. I’m not entirely sure, now, that it matters whether he’s guilty or not.

Just as clever arguments and legal wrangling have a way of overrunning the facts in many cases, our national O.J. soap opera ceased long ago to be simply about the pursuit of the truth about the murders of two people. Instead, the sorry, sordid business has trained a spotlight on the invisible wall that compartmentalizes Americans by race.

Long after our national attention has shifted to the JonBenet case and long after our recollections of Lance Ito and Al Cowlings become blurred, the racial divide will still be there, big and yawning. Even Bill and Newt are talking about race now, a fact that suggests the enormity of the problem.

Even more than the grisly crime itself, even more than Simpson’s acquittal in the murder trial, it was the way in which African-Americans overwhelmingly rallied around O.J. that surprised most white Americans. To many whites it seemed that blacks were simply disregarding the evidence. How could blacks, they wondered, detect the stench of racism in the treatment of Simpson, when so many circumstances seemed to leave so little room for doubt?

Many African-Americans, meanwhile, couldn’t fathom why whites appeared to be so outraged at O.J.’s initial acquittal. Hadn’t the process ultimately worked? Why hadn’t whites displayed equal anger when a white suburban jury acquitted white cops of mercilessly clubbing Rodney King—even though that crime (unlike the Simpson-Goldman murders) was captured on videotape?

If we could poll every American individually, however, we might find a surprising consensus about the Simpson case. Most blacks, I suspect, would say that O.J. probably murdered his wife. Many whites, like me, would admit that they’re troubled by the legal concept that allowed Simpson essentially to be retried for a crime for which he had already been exonerated.

But any fleeting consensus inevitably disappears once the discussion goes public. And there’s an obvious, if mostly overlooked, reason why many white Americans and African-Americans view the O.J. case so differently: The two races have experienced the justice system in fundamentally different ways.

To most whites, justice is an absolute, if imperfect, pole star. Guilty means guilty; the facts speak for themselves. For Simpson’s lawyer Johnny Cochrane to drag in race as a red herring was an unconscionable act.

Blacks, on the other hand, understand the justice system as a flexible instrument. Race, as they see it, has everything to do with the result. You’d be hard-pressed to find any African-American who hasn’t personally been whipped with that flexibility, or who doesn’t at least know someone who has. Just ask any black man who has been stopped or followed by the police because he happened to be in the wrong place or was driving a car that was a little too pricey to fit a cop’s stereotyped view of the car a black man should drive.

Just ask baseball announcer Joe Morgan or the Boston Celtics’ Dee Brown—both collared because they shared a single feature (guess which one) with police suspects. Just ask the once-great boxer, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, convicted of a triple murder prosecutors knew he didn’t commit.

Or ask the family of Medgar Evers, who, like other victims in civil rights cases, were forced to seek justice in kangaroo tribunals with smirking redneck juries.

This legacy, of course, has nothing and everything to do with the cold facts of the Simpson trial: It explains why many African-Americans can simultaneously think O.J. is a criminal and still hail his acquittal because it is a rebuke to the police who so often have turned their authority against blacks with the fury of Bull Connor’s dogs. Remembering your mother’s old maxim about two wrongs, it may not be right to permit old racial baggage to tilt justice’s scales. But the feeling is at least understandable.

Perhaps the crowning irony of the Simpson case is that, before his trial, O.J. had, in many ways, embodied the color-blind society that Martin Luther King foretold. Here was a man who, through football, had reinvented himself from a San Francisco street kid into a celebrity and a hero.

Paving the way for others like Michael Jordan, O.J. achieved racial invisibility. Whites thought of him not as a black man but as O.J. He integrated almost effortlessly into white society. Even his wife was white.

Nor is it coincidental that in order to transcend race, Simpson took the path of sports. In sports, as in no other area of American life, blacks and whites are drawn together to share an activity they enjoy. You can’t say that about our churches (still virtually segregated), our schools (uneasily integrated), or the workplace (which is only theoretically integrated).

For many white professionals, the basketball court or the weight room is the forum for meeting and interacting with African-Americans. That little truth offers promise to both races, but it also reveals the larger problem.

For three decades, America has aggressively promoted an integrated society. Thirty years of affirmative action have produced tangible gains for blacks, but those years have also spawned an angry backlash among whites. Thirty years of busing have led to renewed calls across racial lines for neighborhood schools in which parents can be more easily involved. Thirty years of white flight, income disparity, and incipient racism have convinced many African-Americans that Martin Luther King’s dream is an illusion.

In many ways, we’re still two nations that coexist. And we’ll inevitably view each other through the distorting prism of race until we stop going home to separate neighborhoods after the workday, the school day, and the pick-up basketball games are over.

Segregated housing patterns are the last, most formidable remnant of our separate but unequal past. But the change is doable. Even Alabama and Georgia embraced a fully integrated neighborhood when they realized that the football success of their state universities depended on it.

Most whites don’t harbor racist attitudes. Most African-Americans don’t resemble their TV caricatures. But until they live next door to one another—and even marry each other—they may not realize how much alike they really are.

In this sense, at least, the weird social lesson to be learned from one of America’s most racially divisive cases is an imperative for racial amalgamation: Be like O.J.

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