2 Races, 2 Reactions to the Simpson Case

July 08, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- O.J. Simpson's ''genial, race-neutral style went down easily with white audiences,'' Newsweek observed in its first cover story on murder allegations against the former football star.

I first experienced the remarkable ability of celebrityship to neutralize race a decade ago as a Chicago television reporter when I was sent to cover a political rally in a white neighborhood that had been the scene of several past anti-black riots, including one in which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit in the head with a brick.

As a black man, I was apprehensive about whom I might run into there, particularly since it was 1983 and I was covering a rally of whites who were trying to stop Harold Washington's campaign to become Chicago's first black mayor.

Washington eventually made it and so, it turned out, did I. After I arrived with my camera crew, I was relieved to find that I was regarded with back-slapping glee by the local folks. One woman even asked for my autograph.

Back at the TV studio where I worked, an older veteran of the business, who happened to be white, observed with a sarcastic chuckle, ''You're not black anymore, Clarence. You're on television now.''

That was pretty funny, I thought, but at least one white journalist I know was offended by that story. Why, he asked, should I have been nervous about visiting a white neighborhood? Wasn't I stereotyping a whole group of white people for the offenses of a few?

Guilty. Just like some people get nervous at the sight of young black males on a lonely street, I get nervous in neighborhoods that have a reputation for lynch mobs.

The moral: Race makes a difference in attitudes, whether we want to talk about it or not, so we might as well talk about it. The experience of racism's historical victims is quite different from that of its traditional beneficiaries. Blanket refusal to acknowledge that perspective, even in the name of color-blindness, is in itself a form of dehumanization, the end product of racism.

Celebrityship also dehumanizes, but in a different way. Even white racists loved O.J. -- or, at least, the image of O.J. they carried around in their heads -- at least until the day he was charged with the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her waiter friend Ronald Goldman.

Color-neutral was the way ''The Juice'' wanted it. Like countless other black youths, he put his eggs into the basket of athletics, won the hearts of football and movie fans and purposely shunned the Afrocentric route taken by his friend Jim Brown, a fellow star of football, movies and domestic-abuse rap sheets.

Mr. Brown, who has worked closely with street gangs and black businesses, wanted to make a movement. O.J. wanted to make money. White America was happy to oblige as long as he worked as hard for middle-American consumer culture as he did for his football fans. Even his interracial marriage, once grounds for the downfall of the boxer Jack Johnson, caused no noticeable problems for Mr. Simpson. Polite society in the post-'60s era does not make a large matter of such things. But if white people seemed to see the controversy in color-blind terms, blacks are just as eager to see it in terms fully conscious of color.

I have heard in person and on black radio talk shows various complaints about how Mr. Simpson ''forgot where he came from,'' simply because he had a white wife, even though his visits and financial support of kids back in the San Francisco projects where he grew up are well known.

But I also hear in the same discussions a widespread resonating respect, however grudging it sometimes may sound, for Mr. Simpson as a ''brother'' who ''made it'' the best way he could in a system and society that is often hostile to the interests of low-income black men. His ease in the white corporate and country-club world helped to confirm what blacks have been saying all along about our abilities to slip into America's mainstream, if the mainstream only would give us a chance.

The social investment many blacks made in O.J. Simpson's image may help explain racially-split polling results like those in a Gallup poll for CNN this week, which found that 68 percent of whites said they believed reported charges against Mr. Simpson compared to only 24 percent of blacks. A similar racial split disagreed on whether Mr. Simpson could get a fair trial.

One black woman professor I know refuses to let her mostly white suburban college students discuss the O.J. Simpson case in class. She says she is tired of blacks being the canaries in the coal mine of social debates about sexual harassment (Clarence Thomas), date rape (Mike Tyson), child molestation (Michael Jackson) and now domestic violence. Why, she asks, don't white men of similar fame get similar attention?

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