Appeals to race make all Americans victims

October 01, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

So now, in the dying hours of the O.J. Simpson murder case, when you think you've learned everything there is to be learned about this man, we have one last bit of evidence thrown at us in the cause of his defense:

O.J. Simpson is accused of being a halfback.

At such a declaration, the earnestness spills from attorney Johnnie L. Cochran's pores. Halfbacks aren't aggressors, Cochran reminds us. Their job is to avoid contact. Who ever heard of a halfback being a hacker of innocent people? Everybody knows halfbacks don't do such things. And we're supposed to think: He's right, these dumb cops should have looked for a linebacker, a professional thrower of forearms, and not a guy like Simpson who gave a hip and then took it away.

Thus, one of the marvelous things about this country, from which O.J. Simpson now benefits: This attorney of his, Johnnie L. Cochran, is free to insult all of America with such arguments, and it doesn't matter even slightly as long as it pleases the only 12 people who count.

You want to hear the obsequious patronizing of human beings, you listen to some of the Cochran rhetoric: "Nobody has the courage," he tells this jury, "to do what is right except you. You're the ones who make it work. You're the people. You're the ones who make America great."

For a moment there, we're not certain if it's Johnnie Cochran talking to a jury, or Henry Fonda doing his "people" speech at the end of "The Grapes of Wrath." Except that Fonda was talking about the American working-class struggle; Cochran's supposed to be talking about a murder case.

Or is he? Cochran was doing racist cop Mark Fuhrman, who is a one-man plague on the whole country. But he takes the Fuhrman business too far when he compares this creep to Adolf Hitler, and when he now ostentatiously surrounds himself with Nation of Islam bodyguards as he enters and leaves the courthouse each day. A Jewish man's one of the murder victims, and this is the chief defense attorney's posture?

This is acceptable, only if you accept a hypothetical flip side: A white defense attorney invoking the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan and surrounding himself with the followers of a David Duke.

The Simpson trial is depressing on many levels, not the least RTC because it reminds us how quickly we reach for the race card. Johnnie Cochran lashes out at white cops, not all of whom carry Mark Fuhrman's disgusting history, and Christopher Darden, attempting to score his own points, invokes the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and refers to one prosecution witness as "a brother."

Whose brother? The "brother" of this mostly black jury. Underlying this defense, and underlying some of the inevitable prosecution rebuttal to this defense, is the gloomy cloud of race. The blood, the gloves, the Bronco, the Simpson cut hand: Never mind those things, this jury is told, "You're the people. You're the ones who make America great."

Mark Fuhrman injected race into this case by living the life he's led, and by lying about it on the witness stand. But the criminal case is far more than Fuhrman, and so is the social aftermath.

Racial appeals, hidden and not, are nothing new. For generations, white attorneys and white politicians played the race card, until the law (and the court of public opinion) made them stop. Now we look at the Simpson case, or we look at some political campaigns that are not so far from here, and wonder if history must go through a depressing flip side until a balance of racial payments is achieved.

"I hope the American people will not let this become some symbol of the larger racial issue in our country," President Clinton said at week's end.

In his close, prosecutor Christopher Darden talked of "many victims" in this case. We started this case with two. It expanded, inevitably, to the families of the dead, to the reputation of the accused and, not so inevitably, to the profile of certain Los Angeles police.

And yet these only skim the surface. The whole country is victimized, once again, when appeals are made on the basis of skin. Or when they're made on the basis of a guy's history as a halfback. Whether Simpson's guilty or not, such appeals diminish everyone.

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