Simpson cases demand right perspective on race

February 09, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Americans cheered again last week after the announcement of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial as the media reflected yet again about the polarization of the races. But are race relations as bad as the media say? Is anything as bad as the media say?

Let's rehash a bit of history that, while downright nasty, might well indicate that racial polarization might not be as horrid as we think it is. Most Americans should remember the case of Emmett Till, the black Chicago youth who was all of 14 in 1955 when two Mississippi white men beat him to death for supposedly getting fresh with a white woman.

An all-white jury acquitted both men, who then went on to admit their guilt and get paid to provide all the ghastly details of how they murdered Till in a story for Look magazine. That, and not Simpson's acquittal for murder in his criminal trial, was the low point in the American judicial system. If that case didn't polarize the races, nothing will.

And the Till case didn't. What happened was that Americans of all races, realizing the hard work in racial justice that lay ahead of them, rolled up their sleeves and dragged Mississippi kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

In the Simpson case, we had best apply some logic and reason before we claim that the verdict in either the criminal or civil case will lead to "more" racial polarization. (The optimists among us believe that America's worst days of racial polarization are long behind us.)

In the criiminal trial, a predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson. In the civil trial, a predominantly white jury found him liable in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Is that because of the racial difference or the difference in the burden of proof in criminal and civil cases?

Let's not go kicking ourselves in the butt about racial polarization too quickly, folks. Everybody knows that in a criminal case, the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt and that the accused is not obligated to testify. In a civil case, jurors need only a preponderance of evidence to rule for the plaintiff and the defendant must testify.

In the criminal case, the prosecution simply got outlawyered. Simpson didn't testify and put his feet in his mouth about whether shoes he was clearly wearing were his. Nor did he deny ever hitting Nicole and then have prosecutors present witnesses - most notably his best bud A.C. Cowlings - who could contradict him.

In the civil trial, Simpson did both and came off looking very much like a man who had much to hide. Prosecutors in the criminal trial couldn't do that because of our cherished legal passion for protecting the rights of defendants. Do we want to toss those rights out the window? Before we do, we had best consider that each of us might one day be a defendant and that we might be innocent.

But we don't need to analyze the judicial system to find evidence that the racial polarization angle hyped by us media folk might be overplayed. Ask yourselves: If you have black and white friends, weren't they still your friends after both verdicts? If you had no white or black friends before either verdict, then clearly neither verdict is the reason why you don't.

Oh yes, there were blacks who cheered when Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial and whites who cheered last Wednesday when the verdict was announced in the civil trial. That might be an indication of some racial polarization. Just how much we don't know. But refer to the question in the first paragraph above: Is anything ever as bad as the media say it is?

While we probably shouldn't fret as much about racial polarization as we media mugwumps say we should, there are disturbing questions about the whole sordid Simpson affair. At least one has already been posed. Why is O.J. Simpson, accused of killing two people, more vilified, feared and loathed than Timothy McVeigh, accused of killing nearly 170?

Some blacks have suggested it's because of a "mind-set of white supremacy" among whites. That may or may not be the case. But if you cheered the verdict in the Simpson civil trial and don't have as much passionate feeling about McVeigh, you have some serious soul-searching to do.

In fact, we all do. We don't seem as obsessed with the McVeigh case as we do with the Simpson case. Why?

The answer is not just racial, although the Simpson case gave us a chance to see the Othello-Desdemona thing played out in real life. It probably has more to do with Simpson's celebrity and athletic hero status, with the sordid stories of infidelity, drugs and wife-beating that were revealed during both trials. The McVeigh case doesn't bring out the voyeur in us.

The last nagging question is: would we be so obsessed with the Simpson case if Nicole were black?

I think not. Those blacks who regard Simpson as a heroic victim of white injustice would have ignored him, as would the whites who view him as the ultimate villain. It is a question that reminds us once again that while racial polarization might not be as bad as is claimed, we do indeed have much work to do in improving race relations.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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