An entire deck of race cards


WASHINGTON -- When people ask me, as everyone seems to, what I think of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, I have to ask, "Which one?"

There were two trials here. There was the inside trial that the jurors saw in which O.J. Simpson was being judged. And there was the outside trial that the rest of us saw, in which American society, particularly its system of justice, was on trial.

Two sets of experiences

The polls showed two-thirds of white Americans believed Mr. Simpson was guilty while two-thirds of blacks thought he was innocent. These were polls about the outside trial, a measure not so much of faith in O.J. but in the fairness of the criminal-justice system. While whites tend to believe that Mr. Simpson would not have been charged if he was not guilty, blacks tend to believe, based on their experience, that Mr. Simpson would not have been charged if he was not black.

That's the bigger trial, one that very well may have political repercussions, particularly among conservatives appealing to predominantly white constituencies for "more justice for crime victims and less coddling of criminals."

As a member of the minority of black Americans who, according to polls, thought O.J. Simpson just might be guilty, I congratulate Johnnie Cochran and the Simpson defense team for giving their client the best defense money could buy.

Did Mr. Cochran play the race card? Of course. As he admitted in an unusually candid moment during his press conference afterward, he would have been liable for legal malpractice had he bypassed that golden opportunity.

Mr. Cochran did what many good law professors tell their students to do: He served his client the way his client would serve himself if he only knew how. He expertly summarized the "points of doubt," which, as he told the jury, are crucially important in a case built on circumstantial evidence, as the case against Mr. Simpson was. He rightly asserted that the prosecution's mountain of evidence becomes "molehills when you look at the facts."

Yet, many of us who have covered criminal trials have seen even less circumstantial evidence lead to the conviction of less well-heeled clients.

So Mr. Cochran left nothing to chance. He appealed to the predominantly black jury's racial suspicions with racial buzz words, including quotations from Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. He made it sound as though a vote for acquittal would all but end racism in America the next day.

It seemed to me that, if I were a member of that jury, I would have been so offended that I would have been moved to vote for conviction, just to send a message that not all black people are so emotional as to forget about evidence. Part of me also was hoping for a guilty verdict, if for no other reason than to disprove the popular and somewhat racist presumption that black jurors would be inclined to let a black man off, guilty or not.

Racial fears

Americans who are not too full of themselves have to admit that the Simpson trial attracted worldwide attention in part because it became a stage for long-repressed racial fears, suspicions and resentments across the country.

Mr. Simpson owes a great debt to Mark Fuhrman. The police officer's recorded racial venom exposed the popular lie that racism is no longer something white Americans should care about.

Mr. Simpson's dream team did not have to prove him innocent; they only had to raise the shadow of doubt. They did. Along with it, they raised serious doubts about how well the races are getting along in America. If we Americans do not deal with the reality of race, our national sense of justice will unravel as swiftly and surely as the case against O.J. Simpson did.

Mr. Cochran played more than the race card. He played the whole deck. He did not invent it. Politicians, discriminatory employers, panic-peddling real-estate dealers and racist cops like Mark Fuhrman have been playing it for years. Mr. Cochran only saw his opportunity and took it. I wonder how long it will take for Americans to remove the deck from the table.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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