Simpson Defense's Focus on Racial Identity Further Divides a Nation

The closing argument of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and the cloud it cast over the O.J. Simpson verdict may have inadvertently strengthened the Republican position in national politics as much as anything Newt Gingrich has done in the last 15 years.

The clear underlying message of Cochran's defense was that, whatever the evidence before them, African American jurors should vote to acquit Simpson to "strike a blow against racism" and to "police the police." Over the long months of the trial, the Simpson defense team posited a world in which racial identity is the highest loyalty--exceeding obligation to transracial civil and moral standards, such as accountability before the law and individual responsibility.

All Americans would lose in a society ordered solely along the lines of racial allegiance. But African Americans would lose the most. The only hope for action against the problems confronting the African American community is a biracial political coalition of whites and blacks committed to change; and the only hope for a progressive biracial coalition is loyalty to a set of commonly accepted standards to which everyone is held accountable--regardless of race.

Some hope that a presidential campaign by Colin L. Powell could create such a coalition. But if all public disputes become merely a test of racial strength, if O.J. Simpson's freedom becomes nothing more than pay-back for Rodney G. King's pain or racist verdicts by all-white juries in the Jim Crow South, then the possibility vanishes of sustained interracial cooperation on any front. And without interracial cooperation in the political world, liberals and moderates have no hopes of challenging the dominance of conservative ideas that minimize social obligation to minorities and the poor.

"That's what is so ironic," said Brian Lunde, a Democratic political consultant. "Johnnie Cochran basically wants the world to look at things through race, but his own advice will hurt his constituency."

It is hard to see how blacks, who comprise just 12% of the population--and who by sometime early in the next century will no longer even be the nation's largest minority group--come out the winners in a dynamic that encourages blacks, whites and everyone else to emphasize their racial differences.

A society defined ever more completely by racial identity is one certain to accelerate the racial realignment of American politics that took off with the Democratic support for the cause of civil rights during the 1960s. In last fall's congressional election, nearly three-fifths of whites cast their ballots for the GOP--enough to sweep the party into control of Congress even with only minimal support from minorities. An atmosphere of racial polarization cannot help but swell those numbers in 1996 and beyond.

Only those in the jury box know what led them to acquit Simpson. But the explicit nature of the defense's appeal to racial solidarity--and the apparent responsiveness of the predominantly black jury to the defense claim that Simpson was the victim of a vast, racially motivated police conspiracy--has clearly stained the verdict in the eyes of most white Americans. The stunning pictures of blacks cheering while whites muttered or choked back tears when the verdict was announced chillingly captured the widening separation of interests that increasingly defines American life in the 1990s. As if to underscore the point, conservatives in Washington are already talking about inviting Fred Goldman, the father of victim Ronald Goldman, to address the Republican National Convention in San Diego next summer.

"What this episode does is deepen the polarization," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank in Washington. "It is really a terrible blow to the idea of a civic culture to which we all owe allegiance that transcends our racial and ethnic identity."

Cochran's message in the case paralleled a steady inclination toward racial separatism among black leaders--an impulse evident in such disparate phenomena as the growing self-segregation of minorities on college campuses and the interest in an independent presidential bid from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Perhaps the most disconcerting manifestation of this impulse can be seen in recent articles chronicling the increasing resistance of black jurors in many cities to convict black defendants even in cases where there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, largely on the grounds that too many young blacks are already incarcerated.

In some respects this circling of the wagons reflects an understandable frustration at the persistence of the problems confronting African Americans 30 years after the dismantling of state-sponsored segregation. But as a political strategy, this insular route offers blacks little hope of progress.

Liberals and progressives cannot win statewide, much less national, elections without building bridges across racial lines. To build those bridges, progressives need to convince blacks, other racial minorities and a substantial minority of whites that they share common interests that transcend their racial identities. But the explicit appeal to racial solidarity that characterized the Simpson defense attacks that premise.

Like most Democrats, President Clinton often says: "It is self-defeating to believe we can move into the 21st Century without finding a way to go there together." But if racial interests are our predominant loyalty, the idea of society moving "together" in any direction becomes anachronistic. "It means the fracturing of America," said Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

The fracturing of America didn't begin with the O.J. Simpson defense. Indeed, in the person of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman, the case illustrated the persistence of racist attitudes in parts of the white community--just as the not-guilty verdict from a virtually all-white jury in the first Rodney King case showed that whites are hardly immune to racial appeals in court either.

But the paradox facing the black community is that racism cannot be fought through racial separatism. Only an effort to hold all members of society, whatever their race, to common standards offers the possibility of sustaining a broad social consensus to weed out racism--much less launching efforts to expand opportunities for the poor. In that sense, the Simpson jurors--if they believed in his guilt--could have struck a much greater blow against racism through a conviction than an acquittal.

Imagine the credibility of a jury that convicted Simpson but also insisted the case proved the need for vast reform at the LAPD and police departments everywhere. Instead, the overtones of racial hostility that concluded the case, "reinforces the logic of bias and prejudice on both sides," notes Marshall.

Could a Powell presidential bid reverse this centrifugal flow? That may be asking too much of any single man. Powell could be a uniquely credible messenger for the message that Clinton also delivered in his 1992 campaign. That approach insists the only way to bind together the society is to marry opportunity and responsibility: to expand opportunity for those now on the margins, but to insist that all Americans display personal responsibility in their lives, and be held to common standards of behavior.

Most Americans of all races do not want their society divided into hostile enclaves, but their aspirations are defeated by racial posturing that encourages all Americans to dwell on their differences. Interviewed on CNN's "Larry King Live" the day after the verdict, Cochran said he now wanted "to speak out where I can to help improve race relations in this country." But his undisguised stroking of racial animosities has already widened the divides he would now seek to close. Beyond the families seared in the tragedy, the real losers in the O.J. Simpson trial are all those who still believe that more unites than separates whites and blacks--that America can yet become a nation that judges its citizens not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°