President Clinton stressed Tuesday that he respects the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson trial but said the gap between white and black views of them should propel Americans of different races to “spend more time listening to each other.”
Clinton said he is “troubled” that “Americans see the world differently, generally based on their race,” a reality that he agreed is supported by reactions to the verdicts in the Simpson trials.
“I would say that, even though it’s disturbing, we have succeeded so far in managing the world’s most multiethnic democracy better than a lot of countries that are smaller than we are with fewer differences within them,” Clinton said in response to a reporter’s questions.
Even so, Clinton stressed, more must be done to shrink remaining differences.
“I think the only answer to that is for us to spend more time listening to each other and try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and understand why we see the world in different ways and keep trying to overcome that,” the president said.
As for the Simpson trials, both criminal and civil, Clinton urged Americans to put them in the past.
“The only people who heard all the evidence were the people who were sitting in the jury box, in both cases,” Clinton said. “And civil trials and criminal trials are very different in different ways. So I have nothing to add to that. I respect the jury verdict.”
Scholars who specialize in race relations had mixed reactions to the president’s comments.
David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Bearing the Cross,” a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., characterized the president’s comments as “standard happy talk.”
“I come to all of this with the belief that there is a very explicit, intentional White House strategy to have the president make only optimistic, upbeat comments,” Garrow said. “This is not Martin Luther King speaking the truth as he sees it, irrespective of the consequences it might have for his Gallup Poll ratings.”
Others, however, applauded the president for using the latest Simpson trial verdicts to address the politically precarious issue of the divide between the world views of whites and blacks.
“That is an issue that requires enormous further dialogue, which is hard to sustain unless the nation’s leaders address it,” said Larry Bobo, a UCLA professor of sociology. “I was heartened for him to speak to the disparity.”
The president was correct to highlight the need for increased conversation across racial lines, Bobo said.
“Sadly, we still live in a world that is largely segregated,” Bobo said. “So the sort of dialogue that would help us understand each other does not happen every day.”
On Tuesday, Clinton referred to a major address he made on race 16 months ago in Texas while the Million Man March was taking place in Washington.
“The two worlds we now see each contain both truth and distortion,” Clinton said then. “White America must understand and acknowledge the roots of black pain. . . . On the other hand, blacks must understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America.”
Both Bobo and Garrow said there is great disappointment among African Americans that the president, who has spoken so eloquently on race in the past, has not focused more on race relations recently.
But in his off-the-cuff response to the Simpson verdicts, Clinton said that he has “worked hard” on the issue of race for four years, and his administration is “talking about what else we might do.”