For much of his life, Michael Jackson has transcended race. But now, at a critical juncture in his life -- facing imprisonment if convicted of child molestation charges -- the race issue may prove to be his enemy. It has tainted public opinion about Jackson and continues to color the media coverage of his trial.
There is, of course, little tolerance for child molestation regardless of the race of the offender. Race, though, complicates such offenses when they occur across the color line, particularly given the history of black masculinity in American society -- a history rife with outright fear and frenzy about black male sexuality.
Against this history, Jackson's initial rise to fame is extraordinary. Jackson came to public consciousness as a member of the Jackson Five in the late 1960s, a time when blacks were demanding racial justice. That a group of five black males with woolly Afros could become teen heartthrobs for millions of American girls (and boys) of all races said a great deal about the changing dynamics of race relations in the United States.
When Jackson reemerged as a major pop star in the early 1980s with recordings like "Off the Wall" (1979) and "Thriller" (1982), he was so confident in his universal appeal that he could arrogantly claim that he was the "King of Pop."
Jackson clearly understood that part of his global appeal lay in his ability to mute the stereotypes associated with black male sexuality throughout American history. Michael Jackson was Peter Pan in the eyes of white America. This image of the asexual black male is possibly the reason why some parents were willing to let Jackson spend time with their children; he was the antithesis of the black male brute that lies submerged in the subconsciousness of white America.
Indeed, throughout much of his career, Jackson was an exemplar of the "good black" -- those such as Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Condoleezza Rice who are set apart from "regular" black folk. This is not to say that Jackson was in denial about his "blackness." The kinds of violence that he has enacted upon his face -- the nose jobs and the apparent skin treatments -- suggest that not only was he aware that he was black, but that he probably possessed a hatred of his once racially specific physical features.
Jackson's status as a "good black" changed overnight when he was accused of child molestation in the early 1990s. The black male sexual brute that Jackson had so deftly distanced himself from had reared its ugly head. King of Pop or not, Jackson was not simply an accused molester of children, but a black molester of white children, and that made all the difference in the willingness of white Americans to show any doubt about the charges.
No amount of pixie dust was going to save Jackson from feelings that he had clearly crossed the line, and in fact many whites may have viewed the accusations against Jackson as a rebuff of the goodwill they had shown him throughout his career.
Public opinion about Jackson is even more complicated when it comes to the feelings of blacks about Jackson. On the one hand, there are those stalwarts of racial conspiracies who see Jackson's travails as yet another case of "destroying" a powerful black figure. But for others, Jackson is paying the price for years of trying to distance himself from the black community -- just rewards for someone who has forgotten his blackness. And there are still others who, while supportive, have been affronted by Jackson's attempts to close ranks with blackness whenever he has been under siege, as was the case with his relationship with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam last year and his current prayer sessions with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
If Michael Jackson is found to have molested the young boys with whom he shared his bed, he of course needs to be punished. If he is found not guilty, he needs to be censured for creating a context in which he could be accused -- grown men don't share beds with young boys who aren't their sons. But the history of race in America and fears of black male sexuality have created the conditions where, in the so-called court of public opinion, Jackson has long been guilty.