Black justice, white cynicism

October 05, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES -- Once again, the United States must pay for its original sin: All men were not created equal in the land of the free. Whether or not an American believes that a black man named O.J. Simpson got away with murder seems to depend pretty much on the race of that American -- as ever.

In September of 1831, at a dinner in Boston, Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French magistrate who would go back home to write his classic book ''Democracy in America,'' was seated next to former president John Quincy Adams and asked the old man: ''Do you look on slavery as a great plague for the United States?''

''Yes, certainly,'' Adams answered. ''That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future.''

And so it was. And is.

Judge Lance Ito guaranteed a new American tragedy when he decided to allow television coverage of the proceedings. Television, is the great equalizer of all things. It had made the young football player O.J. Simpson a hero because of his athletic skill -- and because of his race, too. The man looked and performed like a god. His rise from the meanness of his childhood in the housing projects of Oakland, California, made him into a symbol of the greatness of the American idea that anyone could make it in this country. The American Dream. Only in America!

But the cameras and the lights dominate all they illuminate -- usually destroying or changing forever whatever they touch. In Mr. Simpson's old business, football, the game now stops for commercials, leaving the live crowd and players staring at each other in motionless silence until the cameras come back to them.

Now, during this awful year, day after day, Americans have seen and learned that judges are baffled and very ordinary men, police lie routinely to make evidence fit the rules of the trial game, money can buy platoons of defense attorneys skilled in sleazy arts of obfuscation and exploitation, and jurors may, at least in celebrated cases, make up their collective mind before hearing a word of the endless and confusing procedures of the courts.

Cruelly exposed

Some knew and many suspected that was the way things worked -- and so it could be argued that the trial was useful public education. Perhaps they are right, but the majesty of the law and the honored mystery of the courts has been exposed cruelly and altered forever.

The same thing had already happened to football, to politics, to news itself and to the presidency and Congress. Everyone and most everything becomes the same size on television; it does make men equal. So a president may have less attraction or impact or credibility than the next American on the tube, a newsman or an actor, a war widow or a football hero -- or the air-headed Kato Kaelin, a new talk-show regular with people who engagingly recount sexual fantasies.

But those technology-driven changes were inevitable; only the timing and form of them were unpredictable. The change in race relations that the trial and verdict may produce will be quieter, a silent crisis of hard and resigned cynicism. Other Americans may give up on African-Americans, if they haven't already, though very few would talk about it.

Elections in this diverse city tend to show that the ''browning of America'' theory, the idea that all minorities would unite politically against the power or oppression of white Americans, is being disproved. In fact, Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans seem more and more inclined to vote with whites, politically isolating blacks.

What to do?

Colin Powell!

The political and book-selling frenzy over the black general born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants, garment workers, may not be unrelated to the events of the year and of yesterday in Los Angeles. Americans of good will are desperate to validate the national experience, to affirm the American Dream and their own lives in a land committed to rhetorical idealism.

One way or another, if the trial of O.J. Simpson seemed impossible for many to cast in a positive light, the triumph of Colin Powell still says, Yes, Yes, Only in America! -- Liberty and Justice for All.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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