Apartheid of Perceptions

July 12, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — On a radio show a black woman insists that few would care if the victims were black. By fax comes an update of an elaborate O.J. frame-up fantasy signed, ''An African-American.'' On the phone, a black professor recalls his visit to Seattle where two hotel employees told him, ''They're cutting us down one by one.''

A Gallup Poll solidifies these amorphous racial feelings into numbers. Sixty percent of black Americans but only 15 percent of white Americans think O.J. is innocent. Sixty-eight percent of white Americans but 24 percent of black Americans think the charges against him are true.

Black Americans are twice as likely to think the media coverage too harsh. They're 50 percent more likely to think that Mr. Simpson won't get a fair trial. They're more convinced that race will prejudice jurors against O.J. and they're more sympathetic toward him.

Whatever the verdict of this double-murder case, we are confronted again with our dual citizenship in a state of separate realities. An apartheid of perceptions.

In endless conversations about this case, white Americans pick over the evidence. Black Americans talk also about their experience.

Across this great perceptual divide, accusations are lobbed back and forth. Whites are charged with denying or ignoring racism. Blacks with imagining or exaggerating racism. It happens again and again. In separate realities.

When Washington's Mayor Marion Barry was arrested on drug charges, most of white Washington agreed that the police had caught him. Most of black Washington said he'd been entrapped.

When the first Rodney King jury acquitted the police officers, there was a biracial cry of ''foul.'' But after the violence, many blacks in Los Angeles called it ''an uprising'' and whites called it ''a riot.''

In the wake of Mike Tyson's rape conviction, black church groups in Indianapolis called on members to stand by for their brother.

In the Senate confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas railed against a ''high-tech lynching.'' How great would the racial divide have been if Anita Hill had been white?

Diversity exists within race as well as between races. There are shades of opinion as well as differences in experience. It's treacherous to try to calculate attitudes with the crude measure of race.

But for many blacks in America, the past is one long lesson in the difficulty of getting equal protection under the law. It's case studies of lynchings, white sheriffs, white courts, white power. It's a history of black victims ignored and black suspects hunted because of their color. Yet, when blacks quote this history, whites tend to say, yes, but that is history. We are that far apart.

Even today, if a white woman crosses the street at the approach of a band of black teen-agers, she may regard it as rational. If a black man driving his Mercedes is stopped by police, he may regard it as racism.

''If I'm dressed in a knit cap and hooded jacket, I'm probable cause,'' says Charles Ogletree, a black Harvard law professor. Multiply that experience by the thousands. ''Blacks,'' he says, "are very skeptical of being treated fairly."

It's black skepticism and white belief in ''the system'' that divides us in the polling data. It's the lens of our separate realities.

Henry Louis Gates, head of the African-American studies department at Harvard, believes the Simpson case ''is about obsession, rage, jealousy'' and only secondarily about race. But he isn't surprised that blacks are slow to judge one another:''Maybe the only people presuming his innocence are black people.''

Once, O.J. Simpson said that his ''greatest accomplishment'' was getting people to ''look at me like a man first, not a black man.'' But in the courtroom and in the news, the ways we look at him now show our deep racial division.

Separate realities. How do you desegregate a frame of mind?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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