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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Just Under the Skin : Will We Ever Get Along?

October 10, 1995|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream." --Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America"

Even de Tocqueville, with his remarkable prescience, could not have envisioned O.J. Simpson when he recorded those observations more than a century and a half ago. But the painful dream has once again become a reality, as America finds itself bitterly divided over the matter of race.

Lunch counters are not being boycotted and schoolhouse doors are not locked shut. The National Guard has not been called out, and city blocks are not in flames.

Yet something just as insidious and destructive is occurring--a verbal riot of sorts, as people of all colors, but particularly blacks and whites, vent their elation and their frustration over the outcome of the "Trial of the Century." The talk seems endless as the nation digests the final morsels of its nine-month feast on the Simpson trial.

But with all this talking going on, there is precious little communicating.

In the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va., a refrigerator repairman named Albert Lee says he thinks Simpson was guilty. But to this African American, the verdict was sweet revenge, a kind of "catching up" for three centuries worth of injustices visited upon his people. "Well," he declares, "it's our turn now."

Rick Rogers, a white insurance salesman who lives in a small city north of Knoxville, Tenn., recoils at that line of thinking. The trial has made him tired of black complaints about racism. "It's getting a little ridiculous," he fumes. "Any time a white person does anything, it's racist."

In Atlanta, Bev Murphy, a corporate banker, is furious over the way the media have stereotyped whites and blacks. She is white and yes, she thinks Simpson did it, as the majority of whites do. But she also thinks the case was tainted--a sentiment many other whites share. "I believe in the true justice system," she says angrily. "I don't believe in finding people guilty based on false evidence."

These raw emotions stem from a tangled web of forces--not only race, but class and gender as well. The Simpson case has left no chord unplucked. Women are upset because race eclipsed domestic violence as a focal point of the trial. Asians are concerned about the way Judge Lance A. Ito has been portrayed. Even Rush Limbaugh is getting grief--hate mail from conservatives who just wish he would get on to more important topics.

"I know the black-white issue is there," says Fred Lynch, a sociologist at Claremont-McKenna College, "but the more you begin to probe beneath the surface, the more you see that this case and this verdict has activated a lot of other fault lines."

Yet if the case of the People vs. Orenthal James Simpson leaves any lasting legacy to America, it will be that of a stark, unsettling reminder of the tensions that de Tocqueville noticed long before the phrase "race relations" entered the lexicon. In ways both dramatic and unexpected, the trial of O.J. Simpson--and his speedy acquittal--has exposed a deep and raw divide in the way blacks and whites view this country's institutions, as well as one another.

"This case has put race on the agenda in a powerful way, a way that it hasn't been," says Herman Gray, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz. "It may actually be another touchstone, like the L.A. riots, that we can point to to understand the nature of our conflicts, the racial organization of our society and our culture."

*

For a case that had plenty of notoriety without it, race was a constant, uncomfortable companion. From questions over why Simpson was handcuffed, to titters over the taboo union of a black man and a white woman, to complaints over the racial makeup of the jury and the explosive Mark Fuhrman tapes, race was the trickle that turned into a flood, eventually drowning the trial--and the nation along with it.

"This case has been very provocative and profound," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black sociologist who is writing a book about the trial. "It has brought out a great deal of the polarization in society, the hostility and the tensions and the conflicts. And the irony is that O.J. Simpson, if I had to select someone, would be the last person to bring out the deep fissures in society between blacks and whites."

Indeed, Simpson seems an unlikely candidate to carry a banner for black America. Malcolm X fit that bill. So did Martin Luther King Jr.

But O.J.? The football star turned pitchman for Hertz who graced celebrity golf tournaments and mixed so easily in the white man's world? Who would have thought, little more than a year ago, that this man would become a symbol of racism in the United States?

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