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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : L.A. TIMES POLL : Little Movement Along a Deep Divide : Blacks and whites are far apart in their perceptions of race relations, the trial, the police. But thus far, the case has had only limited impact.

October 10, 1995|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It was seemingly confirmed in the split second in which the jurors' decision was heard around the world: For better or worse, the O.J. Simpson trial would be remembered for piercing the shroud that usually cloaks our fractured views on race.

But a new Los Angeles Times poll suggests that despite widely disparate views held by whites and blacks about many aspects of the trial and its participants, it has thus far had only limited impact on the overall feelings about race relations held by Los Angeles County residents.

At first blush, it appeared that it would. Asked whether the Simpson trial has made race relations in Los Angeles County better or worse, or if they are the same, 49% said things were worse and only 11% said they were better.

As expected, there was a strong racial cast to the answer. Whites said things had worsened by a better than 8-1 margin, 60% to 7%. Forty-three percent of blacks, on the other hand, believed that the Simpson trial had had no impact. Another 36% said things had worsened and 12% said relations had improved. Among Latinos, 18% felt things were better, 38% said they were worse and 32% said there was no change.

Yet, it turns out, many people now rate race relations better than they rated them in June, 1994, the last time the question was asked of county residents.

Then, 63% said relations between the races were "good" in their community, a figure that has now risen to 70%. While the rating given by whites stayed the same, blacks and Latinos rated race relations better than they had in 1994. Overall, the percentage who felt relations were bad dropped from 33% to 26%.

The Simpson trial has not increased the number of people who view law enforcement officers as racist.

Despite the well-publicized tape recordings of former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman uttering racial epithets, the percentage of county residents who believe that their local law enforcement officers hold racist views has increased only slightly since September, 1994.

And even after watching Fuhrman deny using a racist word--and then hearing him utter it--the percentage of people who believe that law enforcement officers give false testimony has not changed since that September poll, which was the last time the question was asked.

Countywide, the approval ratings given to law enforcement officers remain at those 1994 levels. And in the city of Los Angeles, a majority of residents still approve of the way the LAPD does its job, although that support has fallen 10 points since June, 1994.

All told, according to Times Poll Director John Brennan, the results suggest that at this point people are separating their views on the Simpson case and their feelings about race relations and law enforcement. "Basically, the impact of the trial doesn't seem to have percolated to the community level," said Brennan. "People are putting these things in different compartments."

The poll, which was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday, questioned 760 county residents by telephone. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is four points in either direction. The poll questioned a representative sampling of all racial groups, but only the numbers of white, black and Latino respondents were large enough to compare independently.

Part of the reason that the trial does not seem to have changed people's views of race relations so far may be the demographic makeup of Los Angeles County, Brennan noted. Many areas are overwhelmingly white or mostly minority, so residents may have a skewed idea of relations between the races.

And people's views about law enforcement historically tend to be ambivalent. Even among those who believe police officers commonly hold racist views, Brennan said, a majority--56%--support law enforcement. Those who think that officers routinely lie on the witness stand also approve of law enforcement's overall handling of its job, 49% to 40%.

Brennan attributed those results to the "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" sentiments many express about law enforcement in all communities, particularly those where fear of crime is high.

"There is a very ambivalent attitude toward the LAPD in black communities," he added. "On the one hand, African Americans have all these problems with the LAPD, and on the other hand, they need their help desperately."

That is not to say, of course, that people of all races agree on the Simpson verdicts or any of the trial's particulars. The Times poll found that while whites overwhelmingly opposed the verdicts, blacks supported them.

Whites were unsympathetic to Simpson, and they favored the prosecutors in the case. Blacks supported the defense attorneys and defended the jurors who cast the not guilty verdicts. Whites are far more negative about key elements of the criminal justice system than before the trial, and blacks in some cases are now more positive.

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