I WOULD LIKE to feel outraged at the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, but I only feel cheap at the thought of living in a country where it could happen--and could happen, in some sense, reasonably. I should say, if it isn't already obvious, that I believe it resulted in the acquittal of a man guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a man apparently absolved on the basis of faith in a conspiracy so nebulous, far-reaching, and flawless in its execution as to defy any rational belief; on this we may disagree, but that's the least daunting of the verdicts delivered by the Simpson jury. Equally outrageous perversions of justice, most of them resulting in the conviction of black defendants, occur every day. And so even if you believe fervently in his guilt, it's hypocrisy to weep too loud or too long over the particular matter of O.J. Simpson. But there is also the matter of what it says about America in 1995.
It says that on the streets and in the neighborhoods of black America, the institutions of government and law enforcement have lost their legitimacy--completely, undeniably, without qualification. In the days to come we will hear otherwise from an array of well-placed sources black and white, but the evidence is right before us in the swiftness and obvious sense of conviction with which the jurors reached their conclusions. They did not need to sift through the evidence pointing to Simpson's guilt or the various disparate strands of Johnnie Cochran's conspiracy theory. They said, in effect, that America has no place and no system of justice for black Americans, that police and courts railroad them as a matter of course. Tears will be shed and hands wrung over this, but the brute fact is that it's to a very large degree true. To fault the jury for saying as much is to blame the messenger.
The speed of the verdict says something far more frightening. On Monday--after the jurors announced they had reached a verdict close on the heels of reviewing Allan Park's damning testimony, after they all avoided looking at Simpson in court--it appeared likely, or at least plausible, that they had found him guilty. This was a prospect no one had really taken seriously, myself included, and it struck me on Monday night that perhaps I had sold the jury short. It was entirely possible, I thought, that knowing what they obviously knew--and hardly needed to be reminded of--about the Los Angeles Police Department and the justice system more generally, they had nonetheless concluded that in this case the defendant was guilty.
For reasons I find hard to explain, this seemed immensely hopeful. If the Simpson trial made manifest the alienation of black Americans from the institutions of government, if it put this accomplished fact before a public that did not want to see it, there was still the matter of black and white at the level of civil society, which was also on trial. And the question before the jury, coarsely put, was this: Do you feel enough regard, enough human kinship, for the victims to give you pause in light of whatever you may believe of the LAPD and its investigation? For the jury to have found Simpson guilty even in view of what it knew about the routine racism and corruption of the state would have been, to me at least, an encouraging sign; it would have suggested that the bonds of common feeling and the desire to do justice had not broken down entirely along racial lines at the level where we actually live.
I don't mean to argue that reasonable people could not have found grounds for reasonable doubt in the case. But the striking thing is the lack of any sense of struggle about the deliberations. As it was, it is very hard not to conclude that for all practical purposes the jury simply didn't give a damn about what happened to victims who fell on the wrong side of the color line. And if this seems a harsh judgment to visit on the jury, it is only saying that they behaved as white America in general has behaved throughout the history of the republic.
Or to put it another way, the cynicism and faithlessness that has always marked white America's attitude toward black America now seems reciprocal: It's payback time, and we will be a very long time fathoming what that means. We could start with James Baldwin, who always understood the irony at the heart of the civil rights movement: that black Americans believed in the highest and best principles of their country far more profoundly than white Americans did. In the letter to his nephew that prefaces The Fire Next Time, he wrote this:
"You, don't be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become."
Can you imagine him, or anyone else, writing such words now? It appears we now live in a country where cynicism and division hold all the cards. Or so the verdict reads.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter