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The Great Divide Black and white: O.J. Simpson trial once again exposes the deep racial divisions in America.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Our great national soap opera is over.

Now we have real life to deal with.

O.J. walks into the sunset, a free man. Actually, he drives off in a white van, news helicopters trailing him along the freeway, in yet another slow-speed chase. When O.J. gets home, he's met by his buddy A.C. Cowlings, the driver in the original chase. You can't do parody of this story.

Maybe you can't do it justice either.

But there is real life here. I'll give it to you quick, even more quickly than the 12 jurors -- tried and true and in one hell of a hurry to get home -- could manage.

There are only two possible scenarios in this case:

* A murderer was set free.

* Racist cops tried to frame an African-American legend.

How do you deal with either scenario? One has to be true. Either one breaks your heart. Because, if we're back to real life and not the soap opera, the issue once again, now and forever, is surely race.

Yes, it's about voyeurism, too. At 1 o'clock yesterday, anybody who could get near a TV set was tuned in. One important truth about the O.J. trial is that, from start to finish, it was a ratings sensation that made stars of such disparate characters as Judge Ito and Kato. To give you an idea, when Faye Resnick reacts to the verdict -- "Oh, God" -- she's on the set of the tabloid show "Extra."

But Johnnie Cochran knew that race would be the decisive factor here. He knew it in the summer of '94 when the New Yorker, to much controversy, did a piece saying that race would be at the heart of the case.

Cochran understood, as few white people could, how this would play.

When Cochran got his racist cop, he wielded him like a club on the jury. Mark Fuhrman is Hitler. Fuhrman is a genocidal racist. White cops -- not just Fuhrman -- hate black people. They lie. They cover up for each other. And that's not all. Cochran took the message a giant step further: Whether or not you believe Simpson is guilty, he said in effect, you've got to let him go as a message to the L.A.P.D.

"You are the conscience," Cochran thundered to the jury.

Well, there are consciences and there are consciences. The pollsters had it right this once. They told us 77 percent of blacks believed Simpson innocent and 70 percent of whites thought him guilty. It depends whose conscience you're trying to reach. There were nine black jurors. Those were the consciences Cochran was searching for.

The numbers matter here. They make for a statistical guide to lead you over the racial divide.

Here's another number, and it's from your hometown. And maybe it explains something. A 1992 study showed that 56 percent of black adult males in Baltimore were, in some way, under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Should black people trust cops? Do blacks and whites see the system differently?

Whites aren't rioting, of course. But whites also don't have anybody known to them as The Man. No wonder we see it differently.

The scenes matter, too. We watched, in wonder, as post-verdict celebrations broke out not just in South Central L.A., but at Howard University, known as the black Harvard. Once upon a time, we thought this trial was about celebrity, or about class, or about gender. It was about race. Always and forever.

And watching this, you can almost sense the divide growing wider, blacks and whites retreating to their respective corners. And you have the idea that next time will even be worse.

The N-word

As an example, this verdict will do nothing to explode one loathsome myth, the one that says blacks won't convict blacks. Clearly they will and clearly they do. Check your local lockup for proof. This is different. This is a case where race became the issue.

It's easy to understand how we got to that point. It's because Simpson was sufficiently wealthly to employ high-priced lawyers who had the means and the will to take a double-murder case and make it into a trial of the L.A.P.D. And because of Detective Mark Fuhrman, now comfortably retired to a home in survivalist Idaho.

The prosecution's high-tech mountain of evidence crumbled before a lowly tape recorder, which gave us Mark Fuhrman's N-word. The case was over then. Fuhrman was a liar and a racist, and maybe the lawyers were right. Maybe this was a setup. It might be logical that a lying racist might also be a planter of gloves in his spare time.

And yesterday, Kathleen Bell, who first mentioned that Fuhrman might have used the N-word, said she hoped her testimony hadn't helped to set O.J. free, even though she knew it had.

Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden tried to persuade the jury that the case was about blood and DNA, of course, but also about a wife-beater who escalated into a wife-killer. Remember Darden's fuse analogy of how O.J., because he wanted to control Nicole, finally killed her? You can file it away with your other courtroom memories, like Kato's dull-eyed stare and the Akita's plaintive wail. The jury forgot about it as soon as Darden said the words.

Gender can be a volatile issue. But not when compared to race. No issue compares to race. Best-selling author Dinesh D'Souza and the other head-in-the-grounders can write all they want about the end of racism in America and of our color-blind society.

How do you defend that today, in the wake of this verdict? You can have your opinions about the need for affirmative action or the state of the inner cities, but you can't dispute the fact that the problem of our time, as W.E.B. Dubois foretold, remains the color line.

Making the case

If we know nothing else, we know that Cochran, in his closing argument, was onto something elemental. For those who thought he overstepped, look to the verdict. When Fred Goldman, father of Ron Goldman, said that Cochran's race-baiting was sick and un-American, he was thinking in terms of morality. Lawyers tend to think in terms of verdicts.

Lawyers took a beating in this trial, as did the entire judicial system. This can be no surprise. Nobody came away clean, including the jury. In the trial as soap opera, the lawyers were the villains, at least until rogue cop Mark Fuhrman stole the role. But lawyers aren't afraid to be the villians. It comes with the job.

And Cochran's job was to get his client off. He attacked the DNA. Not that it mattered. What mattered was convincing the jury that a racist cop, with the help of a laundry list of white accomplices, planted the glove, rigged the socks, splattered the Bronco, contaminated and corrupted the evidence, all to frame a black legend.

The funny thing is, in the beginning, most white people didn't see this case in racial terms. You'd hit a lot of adjectives in describing O.J. before you got to black. He was a football star, a sort-of movie star, a pitchman, a rich guy, a Ford Bronco owner . . . and black? He lived in a mostly white community. He played golf at a mostly white country club. His friends were mostly white.

When the "Free O.J." signs sprouted up, it didn't put you in mind of, say, "Free Angela."

That's if you're not black. Most black people see O.J. as black. And those who knew he had been married to a white woman immediately understood the implications of his arrest.

As one black friend of mine said: "I was distracted by the race thing from the beginning. I don't know if I ever got past it."

And so, Cochran's words to the jury had the ability to provoke: "You and I, fighting for freedom and ideals and for justice for all, must continue to expose hate and genocidal racism . . ."

Cochran had come to the courtroom that day surrounded by Nation of Islam bodyguards, just to make sure everybody got the point. He did everything but suggest that they let O.J. go so he could lead the Million Man March.

The lesson of the trial is how differently blacks and whites see the world. That should be clear to us, but it never quite is. We

like to pretend that we're all, somehow, pretty much the same. Maybe that's an endearing trait. Or maybe it's unforgivable naivete.

In any case, the surprise is that we keep being surprised.

An all-white jury watches a video of cops kicking and beating Rodney King and determines that the police, ever valiant, were just doing their jobs. King was, after all, a big, mean-looking black guy.

We were stunned, just as many are stunned by the Simpson verdict. The evidence seemed so conclusive.

BBut is there a flaw in this thinking? Three of the jurors were not black. There were two whites and one Hispanic. What about them? Well, what about them? If you're white and you live in a majority-black culture -- as they did for eight months of sequestration -- you, too, might learn to see the world differently. Maybe you learn something about cops stopping black people simply because they're black. You get to thinking that rogue cop Mark Fuhrman isn't such a rogue, that he isn't an aberration. Maybe you come to a new place.

What's next?

Of course, we can't get inside the jurors' heads. And they're not talking. Not yet. The lucky ones will get a book deal. "Hard Copy" will get the leftovers.

The show must go on. There are rumors that Simpson wants to tell his story on pay-per-view. Now, we're talking about depths unimagined. Try to envision it: O.J. in 2 million homes at, say, $39.99 a pop. That's $80 million to you. What about a Mike Tyson fight on the undercard?

There's more to come. The Goldmans have filed a civil suit. In his statement, Simpson said he wanted his two young children, who currently live with the Browns, back with him. That could be another fight.

All we know is that O.J., who says he wants to find Nicole's killers, is home. He is home with his family and friends. Some will find that cause for celebration, others cause for grieving. What's saddest of all is that we expect the grievers and celebrators to break down by the color of their skin. And what does that say about us all?

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