"You are the ones who send the message," Johnnie Cochran told the O. J. Simpson jury in his summation. Well, yesterday that message was received and it was, when you thought about it, nothing new. The Kerner Commission had a similar message back in 1968 after the urban riots of the time. We are two nations -- one black, one white. Yesterday, one celebrated Simpson's acquittal, the other did not.
For months the polls have been telling us a sad tale. In a recent one, 64 percent of whites were convinced of Simpson's guilt. Among blacks, the figure was a measly 12 percent. An overwhelming number of whites (74 percent) thought Simpson was getting a fair trial. Among blacks, only 45 percent thought so -- although probably many more do now. These numbers, and what you heard on the street, very simply said that blacks and whites looked at the same trial and saw things entirely differently. At the verdict, whites gasped and blacks cheered.
But those polling figures, as bad as they may seem, didn't tell half the story. Simpson, after all, was an unlikely figure to wind up so racially polarizing. When he was first arrested, he was derided by some black commentators as virtually white. He had married a white woman, for one thing. He was rich and well-connected. Long ago, he had purged the ghetto from his speech. Yet in the end, Simpson stood at the very center of America's racial divide -- whites on one side, blacks on another.
As of this writing, the jurors have yet to speak -- and given the length of their service, they are entitled to their book contracts or whatever goodies they expect. They might well say that race had nothing to do with their verdict, but I doubt it. My guess is that Mark Fuhrman, the racist, lying L.A. detective, lost the case for the prosecution. The jury heard a tape of him saying the word "nigger," and that might well have been that. The seemingly fictional character the defense had created -- the racist and corrupt cop out of a very bad novel -- had turned out to be real. Blacks always knew he was there. Blacks think someone like him is always there.
In the short term, nothing good can come out this trial. Unlike most celebrated cases, this jury had to share access to the courtroom with a global television audience. It had no special authority. Too many Simpson junkies watched every minute of the trial. They know about the bloody glove, the missing white Bronco, the socks, the DNA, the limo driver and those awful pictures of a battered Nicole Simpson.
All these are now part of American folklore. To many people, Simpson literally got away with murder. The law is a lot less majestic today than it was just yesterday. Television has changed matters. A jury ruled, but a nation of back-seat drivers might have gone a different route.
But once the emotions of the moment have run their course, maybe a smug American majority will ponder why African Americans had so little faith in the criminal justice system, why they were so willing to make a hero or martyr out of a superficial former athlete, why they were not surprised that a Fuhrman existed and that he might have planted evidence -- even though, mind you, to have done so would have risked both his career and maybe his freedom. You go to jail for that sort of thing.
My grandmother comes to mind at this moment. She used to sit by her radio, listening to accounts of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of treason. I was a kid, an American kid, and to me the Rosenbergs were guilty. But my grandmother was an old immigrant from Poland. She had lived through pogroms, and so she thought the Rosenbergs were being framed. As a kid, I was deeply ashamed of her attitude. As an adult, I understand.
So now, on the television set behind me, O. J. Simpson has returned to the Los Angeles home we have all come to know so well. It is the same house to which, also on live television, we saw him return after cruising the freeways in his white Bronco. That seems a very long time ago. We have all learned so much since then.