MIAMI -- IT WAS my first day at college. My roommate's folks were dropping him off at school. Their misty-eyed pride was so much like that of my own parents that this realization popped into my head and has remained:
White people love their children, too.
Reared in South-Central L.A., where the only white people tended to be imperious social workers, mean cops, Walter Cronkite and Batman, I don't think I had ever quite accepted white people as real before. White people lived on the nether side of a gaping void. They occupied the last frontier, the mystery place to which one voyaged at his own risk.
Isolation breeds ignorance and fear. When one considers that whites are considerably more insulated from blacks than the other way around, the implications are chilling.
Hold that thought as you ponder the fallout from the O.J. Simpson case and specifically, this question: Why was all of this so important to us? Before last year, O.J. Simpson was a B-level celebrity, an aging ex-jock whose fame was roughly commensurate with that of a guest on "The Love Boat." His trial should have been, at best, a tabloid titillation. But he was a black man alleged to have killed a white woman, so it became instead an anguished referendum on race and justice in America.
I think I know why. For many white people, black people are not quite real. And vice versa.
The use of symbols
Thus, we use stand-ins, surrogates and symbols in order to explore this defining, divisive issue -- race. To tout black achievement, we point to Colin Powell, though he's hardly the first African American to live an exemplary life. To explore blacks and the justice system, we now trot out O.J. Simpson, though his case probably says as much about socio-economic divisions as racial ones.
Symbols have value, but it troubles me that so many of us lean on them so much. But then what else can we do? We can hardly talk, white to black, person to person, when there is this gulf between us. It's so hard to traverse that place. I still remember the prickly discomfort I felt once the door closed and it was just me and my new roommate alone together. I recall how the air changed when my cousin brought his white fiance home; nobody knew how to be with her in the room. We smiled too much, laughed too loudly, worked too hard and never were ourselves.
But I've been lucky. Life has taken me to places that were hell on my isolation. Now I find myself with a veritable rainbow coalition of friends and associates. The good thing about a rainbow is that it forces you to see the beauty in a multiplicity of colors. When you encounter one of "them" who is a jerk or a racist, you don't have to wonder if "they" are all "like that." Not if there is someone in your circle whose life and character demonstrate that "they" are not.
Maybe I delude myself. But the alternative is a lifetime of reflexively mistrusting and automatically fearing "them" across the void. That's American history. I'd hate to think of it as American future. But, no pun intended, the jury is still out on that.
Just the other day I was talking to a black man who became upset when I told him I saw no great racial victory in O.J. Simpson's acquittal. He speculated in a knowing voice that I probably just modified my real opinion to please "those white folks" I work for.
His criticism angered me more than most, because this man knows me. He knows I am stubborn, knows nobody "gives" me an opinion. He knows it because he's my younger brother.
But then he's hardly alone. A lot of people -- black, white and other -- would also question the ability of "us" or "them" to ever rise above groupthink to individuality.
The aftermath of the Simpson case proves this: We remain mysteries, one to the other. And I find myself wondering if my brother knows that white people love their kids, too.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.