In a case that until recently mainstream pundits regarded as "race-free," race is now emerging as the hidden, potentially explosive subtext. Perhaps the true irony is that the trial of a man regarded by the media as being "race neutral" is beginning to reveal in painful clarity the polarizing and ultimately bankrupt discourse on race and racism.
Within the black community, race figured significantly in discussions about the Simpson case from the beginning. The widespread belief that O. J. Simpson was another in a long list of African American men targeted for public destruction initially played no role in mainstream discussions of the case. Yet, with the abundance of conspiracy theories that have circulated within the African American community, it was only a matter of time before such suspicions surfaced as a sensationalized media story, and most important, a possible defense strategy.
Revelations regarding Detective Mark Fuhrman's unsuccessful 1983 disability petition provide for many the smoking gun that heretofore existed only as an unsubstantiated but passionately held belief that Simpson is the target of a racially motivated frame-up.
Critics of this potential defense strategy have been harsh: Some commentators have decried the possible injury to Fuhrman, who told Newsweek that his career was now ruined; others have excoriated the defense for introducing the volatile issue of race in a manner that may compromise the integrity of the criminal process and contribute to continuing racial tension in Los Angeles. Yet the real threat of such a ploy--if in fact it turns out to be one--is not to an officer who essentially claimed that blacks and Latinos drove him crazy, nor to the criminal justice system that frequently blinks at the racism that infects its processes. One can rest easy in the belief that the Police Department and the criminal justice system can and should take the heat. The real loser in all this may be the African American community whose legitimate complaints against police abuse stand to be dwarfed and discredited not only through the defense's possibly cynical manipulation of the community's concerns and fears, but also by the way the system's treatment of Fuhrman denies the realities about race and policing that many African Americans feel they know.
The history of Fuhrman's unsuccessful bid to win a disability pension for stress says much more about the cavalier attitude of public officials toward African American concerns regarding abusive police behavior than it reveals about the Simpson case. At best, the Police Department permitted a disgruntled officer who admitted a propensity for violence to remain on active duty. At worst, it determined that a man who expressed hostility toward blacks and Latinos was fit to carry a badge--and the power of life or death that comes with it. Despite these deeply troubling characterizations, neither the LAPD nor the District Attorney averred to the significant risk of relying on the credibility of Fuhrman and others like him to provide testimony that directly affects the lives of people that officers devalue and disrespect.
Perhaps it is a fateful stroke of poetic justice that with the eye of the nation now trained on Los Angeles, the District Attorney's office has to grapple with its past insensitivity to racism in a case that arguably has little to do with it. These embarrassing revelations suggest that the real threat to the integrity of the criminal justice system is not the raising of the race issue, but rather the failure of government public officials to take racism seriously in the first place.
Yet this is a lesson likely to be lost on the authorities. Rather than honestly acknowledging the difficulty presented by Fuhrman, they are poised to take the route guaranteed to anger many African Americans and to strengthen defense attorney Robert Shapiro's hand. Any attempt to defend Fuhrman's credibility will imply that he is an exemplary police officer, thus relegating his self-proclaimed bigotry to the past. In so doing, the prosecution becomes identified as condoning racism within the Police Department, while Shapiro is seen as championing the truth, namely, that there are some bigoted officers in the LAPD who are quite capable of violating the rights of black citizens. In short, the Fuhrman story opens up the black community to potential manipulation for the benefit of O.J. Simpson.
Of course, the defense is, within bounds, obligated to offer any possible argument that might acquit the defendant. It is important that the African American community not be misled into believing that Simpson's defense team is taking up the banner to fight abusive police practices. They are acting on behalf of only one African American, O.J. Simpson. That is why the Fuhrman theory, having been floated into the public consciousness, is likely to be dropped; there are numerous hurdles to be scaled in substantiating its relevance to the case, and, given the willingness of some jurors to acquit officers who were videotaped beating a suspect, it is unlikely that speculation about Fuhrman's off-camera activities would find support in a broader audience.
The worst and unfortunately most likely scenario is that the defense simply floated the theory to consolidate beliefs within the African American community that there is a conspiracy. Should the forensic evidence weigh against Simpson, other segments of the population may be persuaded, while many African Americans, taunted by a scenario that was never intended to be fully pursued, hold onto beliefs that, unfortunately, will be dismissed as irrational and paranoid. The real tragedy in this turn to race may be its ultimate erasure as authorities and media alike, anxious to breathe a sigh of relief, scramble to shelve the issue without resolving it.
The realities of race are too important to be simplistically played and subsequently marginalized. Just as African Americans will be challenged to see beyond race, so must the legal and media community undertake to see and speak race. Race should not be overplayed, nor should the legal and political community seek to underplay it. Of course, while the burden to avoid the worst-case scenario should be shared by all communities, it will most likely be borne by African Americans. The task, then, is to weigh and consider all the evidence--including the work of Fuhrman--in light of the competing objectives pursued by the prosecution and the defense. Just as this requires African Americans to keep sight of the interests of the prosecution, so must African Americans keep sight of the limited objectives of the defense, which is to free Simpson, by all means possible.