O. J. Simpson & the American Dilemma
The first thing to be said about the O. J. Simpson trial is that he was obviously guilty. Given the overwhelming evidence, one is inclined to wonder how the jurors managed, other than through a willed suspension of rational deliberation, to find reasonable doubt-though it can be said in the jury's defense that Simpson's lawyers set up a display of legal smoke and mirrors so elaborate as to render the obvious obscure. It had nothing to do with justice, but it had its own perverse virtuosity.
The second, and socially more significant, thing to be said is that the trial revealed yet again the appalling gulf that separates blacks and whites in America. It's not simply that most whites thought Simpson guilty and most blacks the reverse. It is not surprising or even necessarily a cause for dismay that blacks would reflexively side with "one of their own," even in the face of the evidence, in a controversial case. That sort of instinctive solidarity is quite understandable. What does dismay is the basis for solidarity: the clearly widespread sense among black Americans that this is a pervasively racist society in which a conspiracy in the white legal establishment to convict an innocent black is not simply plausible but in fact reflects the normal course of affairs.
It is only in this context that the Simpson jury's apparent willingness to accept the defense's unsubstantiated charges of evidence-planting makes sense. And of course there was-providentially for the defense-the presence in the prosecution's case of Detective Mark Fuhrman. This truly vile racist gave the defense all the excuse it needed to make a blatant appeal to race, even to the grotesque extent of identifying Fuhrman with Hitler and of suggesting that an acquittal of Simpson was somehow necessary to prevent a racial holocaust in America. (In defense lawyer Robert Shapiro's already classic line, "Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.") One gets the sense that for a great many blacks Mark Fuhrman represents white middle America. And it is our awful situation that those of us whites who are sure that this is false have no idea of how to make blacks understand that.
Race has always been the great exception to American exceptionalism. We have, by and large, been blessed by history, but race has always bedeviled us. It took a monumental civil war to end more than two hundred years of slavery, and the nation only reunited when Northern whites tacitly acquiesced in the scheme of Southern whites to reimpose domination over blacks through an elaborate system of segregation. As blacks moved north, they found their opportunities circumscribed by an unofficial version of the same system. As late as 1944, Gunnar Myrdal wrote of An American Dilemma in which the nation denied to black citizens its fundamental guarantees of liberty and equality.
The civil rights revolution set out to change all that, and in many ways it did. Official segregation disappeared and much of unofficial segregation with it. In their place appeared a new structure of laws and court decisions designed to secure, in Lyndon Johnson's words, "equality as a fact and equality as a result."
Yet for all the genuine progress that followed, the exception to exceptionalism continues to haunt us. The underclass, disproportionately black, is plagued by social pathologies so profound that many Americans have simply given up on it. After the failure of myriad reform schemes, white Americans are tempted to view the existence of the underclass as a condition to be endured rather than a problem to be solved. Appeals to guilt no longer move them-they have, they think, paid their own dues-and they regard both the rhetoric and the leadership of the civil rights establishment as irrelevant where it is not cynical. An
America made up of white oppressors and black victims is for them a matter of history, not current reality. Middle-class blacks, meanwhile, for all the economic and political improvements they have made, appear no less resentful and suspicious of whites than they were before the civil rights revolution began. A great many of them continue to view America as a fundamentally racist society and they are skeptical, to put it mildly, of white protestations of good intentions.
Race is still, in other words, the great American dilemma. That dilemma has radically changed shape in the past half century and many things have changed for the better. But the dream of a new order of racial concord that those of us, black and white, who participated in the original March on Washington dared to entertain seems, in retrospect, naive and utopian.
We didn't need the Simpson trial to remind us of that. The bitter controversies over Charles Murray and Mark Herrnstein's The Bell Curve and, more recently, Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism have seemed not so much the beginning, however awkward, of a necessary dialogue as the end of any civil conversation at all.
A long essay in the New Republic by Ruth Shalit on racial difficulties at the Washington Post ("Race in the Newsroom," October 2, 1995) characterizes our current dismal situation. In the mid- 1980s the Post began a vigorous program of affirmative action. For every four new hires, one would have to be a minority (two would have to be women). The program worked, at least numerically. Today minority members make up 18 percent of the professional staff of the Post, a figure that considerably exceeds the pool of potential minority journalists.
The results of the diversity program have-predictably enough-satisfied no one. Many whites argue that blacks get in under a double standard ("he's dumb as a post"; "she can't write a lick") and that quality controls have fallen. White males in particular complain of reverse discrimination for choice assignments or for promotions to editorial positions. Blacks, for their part, still perceive widespread discrimination against them: glass ceilings, a hostile newsroom environment, a continuing sense that they must meet standards higher than those applied to whites. The perceptions on both sides constitute what is by now a drearily familiar story in American life.
Whites and blacks live in different conceptual universes on questions of race. Whites see a vastly expanded field of opportunities that blacks have failed fully to use to their advantage. Most whites do not think of themselves as racists and they suspect blacks of indulging in blanket charges of racism as an excuse for inequalities in performance of which they are embarrassed. Blacks see whites as engaged in a massive self- deception as to the persistence of racial prejudice. Behind a facade of equal opportunity they perceive a persisting structure of discrimination-one all the more insidious because it does not announce itself for what it is.
The result of all this is that we cannot speak to one another except to exchange resentments. People of good will on both sides retreat into bewildered or resigned silence, leaving the field to demagogues and grievance-mongers. We need to talk but we do not know how to talk, and those who do talk only make things worse. What Ruth Shalit says of the situation at the Post applies in general: "The more everyone talks, the worse everyone feels."
This is in many ways a season of hope for America. On many issues, the worst of our ideological differences may be behind us. But on our racial divisions, as the Simpson trial once again reminds us, there is not only no end in sight, there are not even credible signs of a beginning.