Race card played by blacks, whites Simpson trial follows a common motif in American history


Many whites are expressing outrage or, more calmly, disgust, at the use of the "race card" in the O. J. Simpson trial.

They see this as akin to the Japanese adage that "to the small boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." They believe that race is a hammer for some African-Americans who will pound everything in sight with it.

But the worry over this, even if justified to some degree, is lost in the larger historical scheme of things. It was whites, not blacks, who were the earliest players in the race card game, especially through racial stereotypes that supported slavery, Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination whether de jure or de facto.

In the 1988 presidential election, who decided to use Willie Horton in his ads? Jesse Jackson? No. It was George Bush. Why did he do it? As anyone knows who saw Horton's picture, he was white America's worst fear: a man whose face had violence written all over it. It was a brilliant strategy in a political campaign where winning (like the O. J. Simpson trial) was everything. In a 1992 election, who ran ads showing a black hand signing a form for "a job that should have gone to you" (viz., white folks)? Was it a black politician? No, it was Jesse Helms just playing that old race card. You don't have to be black to sit at this card table.

The Simpson case also showed more than any other in American history the way that everything, even the justice process, can be made into a form of entertainment and commodity. It was often the lead story on "Entertainment Tonight" and similar shows. Products were advertised during breaks in the courtroom action. Marcia Clark's hairstyle, marriage and clothes were subjected to scrutiny. O. J.'s doodlings during the trial became a book. Johnnie Cochran was portrayed as the dapper, charismatic attorney, and late in the trial he was surrounded by Nation of Islam bodyguards -- something that seemed odd in light of their leader's vehement anti-Semitism and the presence of several

Jewish lawyers on the defense team.

The market value of lives

As soon as the trial was over, the commodification process shifted a gear into that most predictable of directions: What next for O. J.? And how was this discussed? Mostly with respect to his market value. In this whole sordid affair, almost nothing is a sadder commentary than that. And what of the lives of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman? Or their families? What is their market value?

The O. J. trial was theater, with all of its drama, mystery, passion and, above all, process. It lasted too long and it had too many sidebars with bickering lawyers. While it may have taught many Americans about the legal system, in the end it was much like a meal that leaves some people praising the food and the chef, and others damning both and having indigestion to boot.

We were faced with a cultural icon, a sports hero, a media personality known to nearly all of us. Tall, good-looking, charming, embraced by the affluent and mostly white community of which he had become a part. But he was also a wife-beater, someone heard screaming epithets at his wife during a taped 911 call. He was accused of killing two very good-looking white people. And not least of all, he is black. His race was part of a subtext to what he was accused of formally but also what he was accused of informally by African-Americans: He was thought to have turned his back on them, to have forgotten where he had come from. In the end, though, his victory was theirs, and as some African-Americans said, he should come visit them some time.

The law is about winning, not finding the truth. Witnesses must swear to tell the truth but the attorneys are never asked to find it except by implication. Indeed, the defense attorneys' job is to provide the best defense they can, not to provide the truth. We have an adversarial system: It is competitive; it is a contest with winners and losers. Yes, it would be nice if the truth wins out, but finding the truth can become a casualty of a successful defense. That is what many white Americans seem to feel happened in this case. But importantly, the truth can also be manipulated by overly zealous prosecutors who are equally determined to win; and that is what many African-Americans felt happened in this case.

The rich are different

The adage that America has the best justice that money can buy seems borne out by the Simpson case. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The very rich are different than you and me." They are. And O. J. was one of them. His pockets were deep, and that allowed him to plow as much money as needed into his defense. He did what any wealthy person could have done and with the same result: He won.

If O. J. had been found guilty, African-Americans would have said it was race. Instead, he was found not guilty and white Americans say it was race. One can only wonder what would have happened if a predominantly white jury had heard this case and decided the defendant was not guilty. Or if O. J. had been white. Would the response to the outcome have been at all like it has?

In the early 1900s, W. E. B. DuBois said that race would be the defining issue of the century. Now that the century is almost at an end, who can doubt his prophecy? Using Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech as a historical marker, we have had more than 30 years of the civil rights revolution. We have seen the rise of a sizable black middle class. But we also see the places they left behind, America's inner cities, as dangerous places; as reservoirs of hard times and hard feelings; as populated mostly by minorities (African-Americans in particular). People there have sense of being isolated, without access to decent jobs, decent schools, decent health care, decent stores, decent law enforcement, decent anything. In America's racial card game, the cards they hold -- like much else about their lives -- are mostly poor.

The O. J. Simpson trial will almost assuredly become an important historical-cultural marker. It is akin to being the official end to the Robert Young "Father Knows Best" America that many of us over 40 grew up with. Mom at home taking care of the kids; dad at work; school-age children; nice house in the suburbs. Oh, and course, nearly everyone you ever saw on television was white. We are now in a very different time and place from that. Gangsta rap booms out from car stereo speakers shocking our sensibilities and raising disturbing questions about a civil society. Divorce has become commonplace, and out-of-wedlock births have become so routine as to outnumber births to married couples for some groups.

The O. J. trial and all its ramifications, on the other hand, DTC represents us as we are today, a more diverse and divided place. This new reality gives a new meaning to the metaphor of America as melting pot. Historically, this meant that we were all thrown in the pot together and over time melted into one another. Now, however, it seems as though one interpretation might be that the pot, itself, is melting. If true, who will hold us together?

Blueprints for behavior

Sociologists describe society as cohering around beliefs that become normative. These norms, then, are a blueprint for our behavior. They are the rules we have agreed upon and that provide boundaries for what is acceptable and not. They are what we share and what makes us one people, even in difficult times such as the ones in which we now find ourselves. It is our common destiny to live in America, to be Americans. Just as good marriages are the product of hard work, so, too, must we all work at fostering a sense of oneness, a sense of community, a sense of the "in the long run we are all in it together." Lacking that, the images that some politicians portray as a "tribalized" America are haunting.

In the song "America The Beautiful," among the closing words are these: "America, America, God shed his grace on thee." We (( could sure use it. In our Constitution, it says "All men are created equal." If only it were so. In the Pledge of Allegiance, it says "with liberty and justice for all." Well, we have considerable liberty, but it's clear that we have some work to do on the justice part.

Dr. William Falk is the chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park.

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