A wedge or a bridge?


BOSTON -- For weeks, I have been struck by two African-American men who dominated the news. One was O.J. Simpson. The other was, of course, Colin Powell. One was a former football hero and the other a retired general. One was on trial for murder, the other on a trial run for the White House.

Colin Powell called his autobiography about his rise from humble Harlem, public school, ROTC, origins, "My American Journey." O.J. Simpson's story is also an American journey, about the rise and fall -- and now rescue -- of a "hero."

Two symbols

I kept thinking how these two men, who occupied page one so often and so differently, both have become symbols. They are conduits or icons for complicated emotions about race.

O.J. once said that his "greatest accomplishment" was getting people to "look at me like a man first, not a black man." Yet in the past year, he was an icon for racial polarization.

Meanwhile Colin Powell, who talks of himself easily as a brother, is being talked about as the heir to Ike's mantle. A "black kid of no early promise," as he describes himself, has become a great hope.Not a black hope or a white hope, but a hope. His not-yet-candidacy has already become an emotional magnet for racial healing.

These two men have nothing in common except their skin color and our attention. But these are names and stories that we attach to a tough ongoing dialogue about race.

The country that looks at this verdict is deeply divided, an apartheid of perceptions, an America of separate realities. But the same country that looks to Mr. Powell is not blinded by color. It's united by overarching values and indeed longs for the reconciliation he personifies.

The point is that both possibilities coexist in this best-of-times, worst-of-times moment in race relations. The possibility of an irreconcilable wedge and of a bridge, the potential for vast misunderstandings and for connections. Two Americas and one.

I regard this verdict as unjust. The jury traded Nicole Simpson for Mark Fuhrman. This yearlong misadventure has brought out our worst. But there is a less-segregated frame of mind in America that's represented by the likes and the liking of Mr. Powell.

So I refuse to see America as hopelessly polarized. On that, there is more than enough room for reasonable doubt.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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