"The danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream." --Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America"
Even de Tocqueville, with his remarkable prescience, could not have envisioned O.J. Simpson when he recorded those observations more than a century and a half ago. But the painful dream has once again become a reality, as America finds itself bitterly divided over the matter of race.
Lunch counters are not being boycotted and schoolhouse doors are not locked shut. The National Guard has not been called out, and city blocks are not in flames.
Yet something just as insidious and destructive is occurring--a verbal riot of sorts, as people of all colors, but particularly blacks and whites, vent their elation and their frustration over the outcome of the "Trial of the Century." The talk seems endless as the nation digests the final morsels of its nine-month feast on the Simpson trial.
But with all this talking going on, there is precious little communicating.
In the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va., a refrigerator repairman named Albert Lee says he thinks Simpson was guilty. But to this African American, the verdict was sweet revenge, a kind of "catching up" for three centuries worth of injustices visited upon his people. "Well," he declares, "it's our turn now."
Rick Rogers, a white insurance salesman who lives in a small city north of Knoxville, Tenn., recoils at that line of thinking. The trial has made him tired of black complaints about racism. "It's getting a little ridiculous," he fumes. "Any time a white person does anything, it's racist."
In Atlanta, Bev Murphy, a corporate banker, is furious over the way the media have stereotyped whites and blacks. She is white and yes, she thinks Simpson did it, as the majority of whites do. But she also thinks the case was tainted--a sentiment many other whites share. "I believe in the true justice system," she says angrily. "I don't believe in finding people guilty based on false evidence."
These raw emotions stem from a tangled web of forces--not only race, but class and gender as well. The Simpson case has left no chord unplucked. Women are upset because race eclipsed domestic violence as a focal point of the trial. Asians are concerned about the way Judge Lance A. Ito has been portrayed. Even Rush Limbaugh is getting grief--hate mail from conservatives who just wish he would get on to more important topics.
"I know the black-white issue is there," says Fred Lynch, a sociologist at Claremont-McKenna College, "but the more you begin to probe beneath the surface, the more you see that this case and this verdict has activated a lot of other fault lines."
Yet if the case of the People vs. Orenthal James Simpson leaves any lasting legacy to America, it will be that of a stark, unsettling reminder of the tensions that de Tocqueville noticed long before the phrase "race relations" entered the lexicon. In ways both dramatic and unexpected, the trial of O.J. Simpson--and his speedy acquittal--has exposed a deep and raw divide in the way blacks and whites view this country's institutions, as well as one another.
"This case has put race on the agenda in a powerful way, a way that it hasn't been," says Herman Gray, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz. "It may actually be another touchstone, like the L.A. riots, that we can point to to understand the nature of our conflicts, the racial organization of our society and our culture."
For a case that had plenty of notoriety without it, race was a constant, uncomfortable companion. From questions over why Simpson was handcuffed, to titters over the taboo union of a black man and a white woman, to complaints over the racial makeup of the jury and the explosive Mark Fuhrman tapes, race was the trickle that turned into a flood, eventually drowning the trial--and the nation along with it.
"This case has been very provocative and profound," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black sociologist who is writing a book about the trial. "It has brought out a great deal of the polarization in society, the hostility and the tensions and the conflicts. And the irony is that O.J. Simpson, if I had to select someone, would be the last person to bring out the deep fissures in society between blacks and whites."
Indeed, Simpson seems an unlikely candidate to carry a banner for black America. Malcolm X fit that bill. So did Martin Luther King Jr.
But O.J.? The football star turned pitchman for Hertz who graced celebrity golf tournaments and mixed so easily in the white man's world? Who would have thought, little more than a year ago, that this man would become a symbol of racism in the United States?
Yet it is precisely because Simpson straddled the black and white worlds that his prosecution left blacks feeling so bitter. If O.J. Simpson, with all his celebrity and power and money, could not get a fair shake from the cops and the courts--as the trial suggested to many African Americans--what black man possibly could?
And so the celebration over Simpson's acquittal was not really a celebration over letting the Juice loose; the Juice is no Nelson Mandela. Rather, it was a moment of sweet triumph for all the anonymous black men in America who didn't have the money to buy a dream team of attorneys to fight a system that produces a racist cop like Mark Fuhrman--and does nothing to weed him out.
That is a complicated emotion for many blacks who think Simpson was guilty, despite the impression created by public opinion polls. Mary Helen Washington is among them. She is an English professor at the University of Maryland, who says she feels "no sense of celebration whatsoever" at the verdicts.
"But," she adds, "I can understand the visceral response. You all do it to us every time, but you didn't do it to us this time. This was one strike against the racist, unjust criminal justice system. That's what I think it was. This was one time we fought it, and we succeeded in fighting it."
This is why Fuhrman made many blacks so angry. It is not that he used the "N-word" with such casual disregard; black people have come to expect that from white cops. It is that his remarks on planting evidence and beating suspects validated what they have been trying to tell the rest of the country for years, long before Rodney King was pummeled on videotape by a gang of white police officers.
"Black people have been saying this and documenting it with their bloody backs and heads for decades," says Joe Feagin, a white sociologist at the University of Florida who writes extensively about racism. "Most African Americans look at the O.J. Simpson case through totally different glasses for a very simple reason, and that is that black people generally don't get justice in the American criminal justice system."
White people, lacking this history, cannot possibly see it that way.
They know that the criminal justice system is not perfect; one poll recently found that half of all whites believe that big city police are tougher on blacks, and 30% believe that the justice system is biased against blacks. But it is the system this country was founded on, and to many white Americans, it is sacred.
And so when an articulate Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. invoked Adolf Hitler to tell the jury it could use this same system to stop "genocidal racism," whites were enraged. Juries are supposed to deliberate carefully and render verdicts based on the evidence. They are not supposed to use the criminal justice system to send political messages.
Although the jurors deny it, that appears--at least to white people--to be precisely what they did. They took a system that stands for colorblindness and impartiality, at least in theory if not in practice, and they turned it into the spoils system. How could it have been otherwise? the skeptics ask. The jury could not possibly have deliberated on nine months of complex evidence in less than three hours.
To whites such as Agatha Annino, a 65-year-old nurse from Long Island, Cochran's appeal, and the lightning-fast acquittals, violated everything America stands for. "It kind of got out of control," Annino says. "I thought, 'This can't be the justice system. This is a mockery.' "
Already, there is evidence of a backlash, with repercussions that will be subtle but perhaps more harmful to African Americans than any violent outburst.
Consider the reaction of a Torrance doctor. He had difficulty not long ago with a black employee and was counseled by lawyers that he could face a discrimination suit if he fired her. Ultimately, he paid her a small settlement to leave in exchange for her signing a release saying she would not sue.
For this man, the verdicts capped a long-simmering resentment against African Americans. Like many whites, he says he is tired of tiptoeing around blacks in the workplace, weary of worrying about accusations of racism every time he makes a decision. "I'll never hire another black person," he vows.
That does not surprise political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of the book "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal." Hacker expects the acquittals to have ramifications far beyond the criminal justice system, as white anger translates into a lack of support for affirmative action, welfare and other social programs that are important to blacks.
"A lot of white people were very upset to see black people on TV looking that happy," Hacker says. "There are a lot of areas where black people, being in the minority, depend on white support and goodwill. And insofar as white people feel blacks are behaving badly and need to be chastised a bit, there is going to be some lessening of support."
Hutchinson, the black sociologist, states it a bit more bluntly than that. "The reaction from much of white America," he says, "will be swift and brutal."
Perhaps, in our high-tech world, all this discord was inevitable.
The Simpson extravaganza was deadly in its seduction, an almost fatal attraction for a nation hooked on the stuff of which tabloids are made. The case was laden with fascinating characters, plot twists and compelling themes--interracial romance, spousal abuse, celebrity, money, power, race and the courts--all wrapped up into a daytime drama no Hollywood screenwriter could ever have fathomed.
It was riveting stuff; it practically put the soap operas out of business. And it was televised, all day, every day for nine months running, which brought it into the living rooms of America in a way unlike any trial that had gone before it.
"The O.J. Simpson case is the biggest and most popular soap opera in America in quite some time," says Todd Boyd, who teaches at the USC School of Cinema-Television. "This is like a perfect case study of almost everything that is important and relevant in contemporary American society: race, class, gender, spousal abuse, the cost of celebrity, media overkill, the legal system."
But the media have a way of fanning flames, of reducing complicated matters to their simplest elements. Not all black people think O.J. Simpson is innocent. Not all white people think he is guilty. What about Latinos and Asian Americans? Who is examining their views?
What does it say about our society that people earning more than $50,000 a year--both white and black--are more likely to think Simpson is guilty than those earning less than $30,000? Or that college-educated people are more critical of the jury than those who are less educated?
Somehow, these subtleties have been lost in the hoopla over Simpson. There is no place on the nightly news, it seems, for a man like the one we'll call James, a 65-year-old retired postal worker from Los Angeles who asked that his real name not be used.
He is a black man who, in his younger days, had his own unwarranted run-ins with police. He knows all about the Mark Fuhrman mentality. But he does not see any frame-up here. He sees a rich, egotistical wife-beater who probably killed the woman he loved in a fit of rage. And all the black people he knows--his ex-wife, his girlfriend, his children--agree with him.
As for the jury, James thinks it did its job, and was probably unable to convict beyond a reasonable doubt, although he suspects some of the African American members feared that they would be cast out as pariahs in their neighborhoods if they delivered a guilty verdict.
James' views are not getting much air time. Instead, as an African American, he finds himself put into a neat little box, dumped in with all those who rejoiced at Simpson's acquittal. It irks him. "I don't like that feeling," he says. "I've always considered myself a person that thought for himself, and any time someone tries to lump me into a group, I'm offended."
On May 1, 1992, with Los Angeles in flames, an exhausted, nervous Rodney King stepped before a microphone in front of a swarm of reporters. His voice barely audible, the then 26-year-old former construction worker delivered a plaintive plea that the nation may never forget.
"Can't we all just get along?" King asked.
It would be nice to think, more than three years later, that the answer to that question is yes, that some greater understanding might come from the Simpson case and the discussion it has generated about race. But those who make their living studying relations between the races are not optimistic. They have seen these opportunities come--the civil rights era, the Christopher Commission report and now the Simpson case--and they have sadly watched them go.
Kimberle Crenshaw, a UCLA professor of law, has what she calls a "wish list" about the Simpson case. Her biggest wish is that blacks and whites might work together toward addressing the fundamental problems in society--poverty, racism, inequality in a criminal justice system that, at least on paper, offers equal justice for all--that created the Simpson crisis in the first place. She does not expect that to happen.
"These issues can only be suppressed so long," Crenshaw says, "without them bubbling over at the most inopportune times."
Indeed, the real tragedy of the Simpson case, beyond the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman and the trauma wrought upon their families, may be this: After all the trial has done to expose the chasm between blacks and whites, society is likely to do little to bridge that gap. Once the anger subsides, Crenshaw and others predict, thoughtful discussions of race will be buried again.
Until the next inopportune time.