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COMMENTARY : Lesson From Simpson: Search for Heroes, Find Celebrities

October 08, 1995|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — At a church in black Los Angeles, the pronouncement "not guilty" elicited a joyous celebration. In a classroom on the campus of Howard University, students erupted into prolonged cheers.

On North Capitol Street, just north of Union Station in the nation's capitol, young black men who'd never met leaned out of cars and passionately high-fived each other because the Juice was loose.

All over urban America you could find these scenes last Tuesday. It was as if acquitting O.J. Simpson made up for Rodney King and Emmitt Till.

For all the black fathers and uncles and grandfathers who'd been jailed unjustly, for every brother who has been framed or railroaded, beaten into a confession or placed at the scene of a crime when he was a million miles away.

You know what? It doesn't make up for it. I'm a lot less concerned with O.J. Simpson's guilt or innocence than I am with this unqualified embrace of a man simply because he is a celebrity. All of America has become mesmerized by celebrity in the past 20 years. But nobody buys into celebrity, nobody's suckered inescapably into it like black people, my people, the people who can least afford it.

You know what happens every single day in urban courtrooms in this country? Black juries, or predominantly black juries, convict black people of crimes with no more drama than necessary.

Ordinary, everyday people. But not the chosen ones. You know who the chosen ones are in black America? People who dunk, tackle or sing. Can't touch them.

A black delivery man on trial facing the same evidence Simpson faced is a black delivery man headed to prison for life. Don't be like the kid Lenell Geter in Dallas, an engineer who was thrown in jail for life for robbing a convenience store even though his white co-workers testified (truthfully) he was with them at the time of the robbery. If it weren't for "60 Minutes" Geter would be rotting in a cell right now.

I don't remember the outcry on North Capitol Street (or anywhere else) over Geter being set free after a wrongful imprisonment. Geter couldn't dunk on anybody or run the power sweep, so how much could his life really be worth?

I worry that the people who feel overjoyed at Simpson's acquittal don't get it. Simpson is free because he played football, because he turned that into a movie career and he's rich. Period. This doesn't symbolize anything or portend great changes in the judicial system to somehow ensure a better shake in the future for African-American citizens. Simpson is black, but it doesn't mean he spent any time being black in the larger and more important cultural sense. It's funny how we don't see or hear from these people in any social context until they're tied to the tracks with the train coming. Then, all of a sudden, they're black.

I worry that we, black people, are so desperate for heroes we'll take the worst candidates on the face of the earth because they ran sweet or had a nice crossover dribble. In the past year we've fawned over a drug user (Marion Barry), a convicted rapist (Mike Tyson) and a wife-beater (Simpson), as if those three somehow reflect the best of what we have to offer society at-large or our own communities. We didn't ask for apologies or assurances it won't happen again, much less demand accountability. As columnist Vernon Jarrett said recently on the topic of a celebration for Tyson: "I agree you let the sinner back in the church, but you don't make him a bishop."

I'm not naive about one of the primary emotions involved here: vengeance.

A lot of black people could care less about Simpson and see him truly for what he is. They simply see this as payback, even if the score is still about 1 million to one. They feel the chickens might have come home to roost Tuesday for all of our relatives and ancestors who've been beaten and raped and lynched and murdered by whites without any consequence whatsoever. Personally, I think a better measure of justice is seeing the man who murdered Medgar Evers convicted some 30 years after the act. But, overwhelmingly, this is an emotional, not an intellectual, response.

While we need to be more practical and more sophisticated about whom we embrace blindly, I don't blame Johnnie Cochran for using the so-called "race card." He didn't put it in the deck. Black people didn't create the environment in this country that allows the race card to trump all else. In fact, part of me gets a bit excited about seeing a black man play it so skillfully. It's funny to hear the outcry over the defense team playing the race card when white politicians use it every election year (including the upcoming one), when white prosecutors have used it like a hammer to sway all-white juries against black defendants since America was first settled. In fact, the best thing about this trial from my point of view is that black viewers -- and we sure as hell watch TV -- have seen through Cochran and Christopher Darden that black people can skillfully compete at something besides sports.

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