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The Simpson Legacy : Just Under the Skin : The Jury Is Still Out : A Shared Moral Vision Is Imperative for Our Survival

October 10, 1995|GEORGE REGAS

"The Greeks have a saying that there is no justice in Athens until the uninjured are as indignant as the injured parties."

George Regas, rector emeritus, All Saints Church in Pasadena

When I read what the racist cop Mark Fuhrman had said on those obscene tapes--"If I had my way, all niggers would be gathered together and burned"--I was revolted in the deepest places of my spirit. But I was also repulsed by Johnnie Cochran's zealous oratory in the closing arguments of the Simpson trial when he poured fuel on the racial fires by comparing Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and urging the mostly black jury to send a message to the nation against racism and police misconduct.

My own belief is that O.J. Simpson, this football hero, brutally abused his wife, Nicole, and was guilty of murdering her and Ronald Goldman. I hoped he would be convicted. That is why my immediate reaction to Cochran's racial appeal was one of such deep disdain.

A few days of reflection have put these strong feelings into a clearer perspective.

I still believe there was more than adequate evidence to convict Simpson, yet Cochran was not entirely out of line because the Simpson case was "dripping with race" from the start. Even Time magazine shamefully darkened Simpson's mug shot on its cover. If Nicole Brown Simpson had been black and Goldman had not been white, would the tabloid media have possessed us? Race matters. Race affects every dimension of life. Here was a black man accused of brutally cutting the throats of two white people in a city that had exploded with riots 3 1/2 years ago when a white jury acquitted four white cops who bludgeoned Rodney King.

Race matters profoundly, but we of the white world continue to obfuscate this reality. Cornel West, professor of Afro American studies at Harvard, writes that the astonishing disappearance of any meaningful discussion of the earthshaking events of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 "is testimony to just how painful and distressing a serious engagement with race is ... Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire next time will consume us all."

More than any other event in the last 20 years, the Simpson trial forces all of us to look into the chasm of race and see unmistakably its breadth and depth. We are so deeply polarized that no verdict could reconcile our feelings. We have pretended race isn't an issue for the last 20 years, but the Simpson trial shoves it right into our eyes.

The grotesqueries of blacks dancing in the streets with jubilation for the acquittal of a wife-beater who had never shared in the civil rights struggle, and whites insinuating that a predominantly African American jury was not intelligent or free enough to convict a black brother, both are destructive and absurd.

Outraged feelings from both sides have been expressed and the divide between us is profound. But it would be the ultimate outrage is we let this brutal murder and trial drive us further apart. The jury is still out on whether we are committed to healing the racial chasm. I would suggest some ways toward racial healing.

First, we must understand our differences. The trial didn't create this division among African Americans and white Americans--it only brought it dramatically to the surface. Healing will come only if there are places where blacks and whites take the risks to be frank and candid about race. I still recall vividly a meeting at All Saints Church some 10 years ago when an African American physician told us about the humiliation of being pulled over at midnight by the police as he drove to his house in Altadena, questioned, spread-eagled and patted down--just because he was black. The O.J. verdict makes sense to this man.

We have a Coalition for a a Non-Violent city in Pasadena, where we live in an epidemic of senseless violence and the victims are bitterly angry. It is a hard piece of work to get us at the table to be honest about race. We know it is not a colorblind society; we are deeply divided and we need healing. But we are making progress because we know we can show our differences, and if it is bruising we well be around the table struggling to reach a place of healing and health.

In one of these coalition meetings, a black woman screamed at me, "All your world knows to do with our black men is to send them to prison!" And in many ways she was right. So we had to engage the reality that one out of three black males in their 20s are now under the criminal justice system's control and half of the prison population is black men. We won't heal the division by living in segregated worlds and never sharing honestly with each other.

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