Lesson from O.J. verdict we didn't want to learn

Comment

October 08, 1995|By Elise Armacost

STANDING IN the newsroom last week, a young

African-American reporter described her feelings as O.J. Simpson was acquitted and throngs of black people rejoiced. As she spoke, I became aware of a gaping chasm between us.

Perhaps it opened at that moment. My guess, however, is that it's always been there and I never saw it.

I never thought there was all that much that separated me, and other white people who believe that skin color is just skin color, from blacks. Didn't we all want the same thing? Opportunity and fairness for everybody? A society where race doesn't matter? If a chasm existed, I thought we were on one side, the bigots and extremists on the other.

In Carroll County, where I grew up, the black population has hovered around 3 percent forever. What few African-Americans there are are concentrated in the southern part of the county and

several isolated pockets elsewhere.

Almost no blacks

In northeastern Carroll, the farming community turned suburb where my family still lives, blacks are virtually non-existent. In 12 years of public school, I can remember three black classmates. Little has changed since. Last year, my brother showed me his high school yearbook. There were two, maybe three, black faces.

Its good qualities notwithstanding, the area is not a comfortable place for minorities. The view is narrow. Overt racism exists. Mostly, however, prejudice manifests itself through stereotypes, misunderstanding and separation.

People assume that the county's small minority population reflects blacks' desire to "live among their own people." Interracial dating or marriage carries a stigma, even among people whose churches or circle of friends include blacks.

The residents distinguish between "us" and "them," not in a malicious way, but as an unconscious reflection of the fact that blacks are not considered part of their world.

I struggled for a broader perspective. I wanted to live in a color-blind society -- and I assumed that the minority community did, too.

But when O.J. was acquitted, I was stunned to find I was wrong. I found myself standing, not in a color-blind society, but on the white side of a racial divide.

I thought he was guilty because I believed the evidence against him. I knew there were people who believed him innocent. I didn't expect to see African-Americans from one end of the country to the other exulting as if they had won the lottery. Their jubilance at the verdict seemed both disproportionate and inappropriate. When did O.J come to mean so much to black society? Wasn't he an icon of the white community as much as the black? What made his victory their victory?

The celebration seemed more than an affirmation of justice, a suspicion the young African-American reporter confirmed. She said she believed O.J. was guilty, but confessed she couldn't help being a little happy to see him get off.

'It's like a payback'

"Finally," she said, "a black can do what white men have done, and that's get away with murder. It may not be right, but that's part of what's in [our] hearts. It's like a payback for past injustices."

But . . . wasn't this supposed to be a trial of one man, not retribution for the masses? Could the acquittal of one black football star possibly atone for centuries of mistreatment by whites against blacks?

My friend went on to say that blacks, who have long felt the scales of justice were rigged, identified with O.J. and his ordeal with racist cops. Blacks, she said, thought whites wanted to get O.J. because he committed the ultimate sin -- marrying a white woman.

For some, it may have been the ultimate sin. But that was the kind of color-consciousness I thought society was making strides to leave behind.

Instead, my friend said she doesn't approve of interracial marriage, either. "I want to keep my own culture," she said. She talked of the importance of "blackness," and how O.J. had abandoned his and now must reclaim it.

"Race does matter," she said, referring to "us" and "them" the way people back home do.

That night, I tuned in again to the images of African-Americans dancing in the streets. I couldn't feel what they felt. But I understood: Race matters. More than I thought it did. More than I wish it would.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arunde County.

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