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The Jackson trial in black and white: Life experiences color views of case


NEW YORK - Every media circus needs its sideshow. Michael Jackson's acquittal Monday appeared to leave the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Jackson adviser and major megaphone for racial anger, in the awkward position of having precious little to be angry about.

"I think the criminal justice system has worked this time," Mr. Sharpton shouted over the midtown Manhattan traffic into a bouquet of microphones. "I think this is a vindication for people that believe people are innocent until proven guilty. ... We can say that this jury decided the evidence was not there and they acquitted him. ... It is good for America. Michael deserved the same rights as any other citizen."

Mr. Sharpton spoke to reporters outside the headquarters of Mr. Jackson's record label, Sony Music Group.

When I asked Mr. Sharpton whether he would be advising Mr. Jackson to change his lifestyle, which includes his proclivity for sleeping with young boys, the Harlem minister only hinted that he might.

"I plan to advise Michael to take a long period of reflection and to be deliberate and sober from here on," he said.

Right. Tell him to choose older roommates too.

One was left only to imagine what Mr. Sharpton would have said had Mr. Jackson been found guilty.

Race stalked the Michael Jackson trial like a ghost. Mr. Sharpton didn't bring it up on this occasion, but several black bystanders who came up to me out of the crowd did. Their concerns, expressed before the verdict was read, reminded me of how, as much as white Americans seemed perfectly happy to stop talking about Mr. Jackson's race long ago, black folks just can't seem to stop talking about it.

I also find it interesting that so many black folks I know still view the pop star as black, compared with the many white folks I know who are quite comfortable to see him as someone who is trying very hard not to be black.

I know I am going to offend some people simply by bringing up the race issue. But it's always there in many minds, whether the rest of us like it or not.

Remember how shocked Americans were in 1995 when the O.J. Simpson verdict came in? We were shocked because we hadn't had an honest dialogue about race in the country beforehand. When TV footage showed whites crying and blacks cheering after the verdict was read, blacks were not cheering because they necessarily loved Mr. Simpson. They were cheering because his high-profile trial reminded so many of them that he beat a criminal justice system that tended to be a lot worse for blacks than for whites.

A Harris Poll was the first to report before the Simpson trial began that large majorities of whites thought he was guilty while most blacks believed he was innocent. A Harris Poll last year found that black and white perceptions of the guilt or innocence of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and even domestic goddess Martha Stewart were similarly polarized. Again, I would submit, the reason has less to do with the race of the defendants than with the way blacks tend to have had more negative personal or family experiences with police and prosecutors.

That's also why we have not seen many blacks dancing in the streets over Mr. Jackson's acquittal on all counts at his child-molestation trial. Just because you're not guilty, as the old saying goes, doesn't mean you're innocent.

To paraphrase an old Jackson tune, it doesn't matter if you're black or white (or whatever) when it comes to feeling revulsion about Mr. Jackson's weird sleeping habits.

A lot of Mr. Jackson's old fans - like me - are hoping he takes Mr. Sharpton's advice, looks at the man in the mirror and asks him to change his ways.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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