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Another Drink of the Blues: The Race Card in the Simpson Case

July 31, 1994|Stanley Crouch | Stanley Crouch, author of "Notes of a Hanging Judge" (Oxford), was a 1993 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship. He is currently finishing a biography of Charlie Parker

NEW YORK — With the O.J Simpson case, we are allowed another chance to recognize how fallacious is the idea that black Americans are some perpetually excluded group forced to watch the parade of society from behind a barbed-wire fence. If anything, the Simpson story is further proof of the fact that black Americans are at the center of our national tale--functioning both as flesh and blood movers and metaphors in the continuing democratic debate that redefines our policies and our attitudes toward our political, professional and intimate lives.

The impact of Afro-American culture and the civil-rights movement has touched us everywhere, from the dance floor to the senatorial debate. In professional athletics, Curt Flood was the martyr who led the way to the idea of free agentry, destroying his baseball career in the process. Army Sgt. Perry J. Watkins was the first homosexual I became aware of who was openly willing to take on the military. Now, because of the Simpson case, ravages of domestic violence have risen into high media view, just as deep questions of sexual harassment came with the charges Anita F. Hill laid on Clarence Thomas.

So it is impossible to discuss issues of freedom and fair play with any seriousness and not recognize the ways in which black Americans have indelibly influenced our attitudes and policies. It is also impossible to pretend that victimization has not become a growth industry. We make most-favored-victim laws; we hire separatist boneheads onto our university faculties; we tailor our history to self-flagellating theories; experience the national Peeping Tom craze for geeks on talk TV, and slip through our problems on the snake oil of recovery experts.

That is why the Simpson case is so loaded. It is fused to a complexity that will play itself out in everything from eloquence to lunacy, high-mindedness to opportunism, as the trial progresses. The charges against him, and what we think we now know about his world, put us smack dab in the middle of our schizophrenic suspicion of privilege and our "wish for kings," as Lewis H. Lapham calls it. Simpson's American dream wealth was made possible by the gold-rush aspect of our society that we most often see in the worlds of popular entertainment and drug dealing.

Though he had an objective talent that separated him from the stars of pop music and movies, Simpson moved from the back of the bus to the wheel by playing a boy's game--which meant that he excelled in the excessively celebrated adolescent world of sports. His generosity as an athlete was displayed when he brought the offensive line who blocked for him to his locker-room interviews, clarifying the importance of the team to his achievements. He was the strong, nearly silent type, low-keyed and marvelous at his game.

With the blood-encrusted gore of the murders and the inevitable snooping into the darker sides of his intimate life, Simpson joined the long line of figures whose private lives have a dissonant relationship to their public images. Though race wasn't discussed at first, there was always a media code. The murdered ex-wife was endlessly referred to as "the beautiful, blonde Nicole," while he was never described as "the handsome, brown, woolly-headed O.J."

Some dismiss her description as typical of mass-media sexism of the sort reserved for blondes and redheads. They are partly correct, because the blonde has had an unnaturally high position in our erotic iconography since the peroxide explosion of the '30s. But it is also true that Nicole's color was underlined in code because she was half of an interracial couple living in a world whisper-close to those deep-dipped in the decadence and melodrama of upper-class soap operas. Finally, there must be, in the wake of so many black brutes in the popular work of writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, the question of whether this is what any woman should be prepared for from one of them , rich or poor, famous or nameless.

In a court of law, none of these things should matter. It would be pretty to think so, but once it is possible to play the race trump in a city that has the recent history of Los Angeles, one shouldn't be surprised to hear the card loudly smack the media table. Still, the ways in which race, class, sex and ideas about racial allegiance can influence potential jurors, law enforcement and the legal process itself are much more complicated than their surfaces would suggest.

Because of affirmative action, whites seem more bothered when executive positions are held by mediocre or incompetent black people than by their white parallels; the sustained, murderous barbarism of black street crime transforms the tolerance of the most exasperated into a simmering racism, and the flippant hedonism of the worst upper-class black party animals instigates envy and resentment, even in certain police officers.

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