"We have deluded ourselves into believing that this fragmentation in our society is a good thing."
The speed with which the O. J. Simpson jurors reached their verdict paled in comparison with the impact of the decision itself. The national reaction to the "trial of the century" was as electric as it was divided along racial lines. But that dismaying split reflects America as it really is, two nations -- one black, one white, and each seriously out of sorts with the other.
To say that the "not guilty" verdicts show the lack of faith African Americans have in the criminal justice system is too narrow a reading of what just occurred. Would that differences over O. J.'s guilt or innocence were all that comes between us. No, the spontaneous cheering among so many African Americans and the disgusted reaction of most white people (to both the verdict and the jubilation) were related to Simpson's acquittal and what went on in Judge Ito's courtroom, but only partially so. Those emotions we saw unleashed on Tuesday, unabashed, raw and with overtones of racial antagonism, had a lot to do with what we have come to as a nation. Just look around.
Tough civil rights laws have been on the books for 30 years. Yet in so many areas, African Americans are still the most segregated group in the country. By custom (and with a good dose of discrimination), most white people live in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. It cuts both ways, of course: Many blacks also prefer communities where they dominate. But in contrast to black neighborhoods, comfort levels go down in white neighborhoods and the "for sale" signs go up when the number of blacks rises above the safe few.
"Jury nullification" is a term that has been tossed around a lot since the verdict. If that means rejecting the law and the evidence in favor of one's own views of what's right, it's not limited to the courtroom. By that definition, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision might as well be considered nullified in many parts of the country. The chances of most white and black youngsters to intermingle in a classroom or playground on a normal and daily basis are as remote in some communities today as they were when segregation was legal. Forty years after the Brown decision, a majority of African American youngsters today attend predominantly black and generally less well-endowed schools.
Laws notwithstanding, dividing lines persist. We socialize separately, we self-segregate ourselves at work and in lunchrooms, and as if that weren't enough, when the forced interaction is over at the close of business, we retreat to the safety of our communities and the security of friends, where we privately glorify our own culture, race or ethnicity.
Today, as in the past and tomorrow, the hour of greatest racial separatism in America is the weekly traditional time of worship when people of faith congregate to pray to a God of all. And, beloved, we have the nerve to wonder why all of us don't see eye to eye on what happened in that L.A. courtroom?
The sad thing is we have deluded ourselves into believing that this fragmentation in our society is a good thing -- that identifying with one's racial or religious cohort to the extent of excluding others on the basis of their values and character is the right and comfortable thing to do. Exclusively identifying with one another by blood and staying behind the walls of our self-chosen segregation may be the way it is these days, but in the long run, is it really a good thing? I think not.
Because so many of us who profess to care about social justice and equality have copped out and joined in the racial and ethnic massings in the name of preserving group harmony, we have left fertile ground for racial separatists and antisemites, sexists and homophobes to muck around. And they are quietly having the time of their lives.
That's not all. Beneath the patina of harmony, some of us are also being driven by a defense mechanism. The experience with rejection (or the fear of it) and the need to bolster a sense of our own worth, has led us to cluster among people like ourselves. That can be positive; but there can be a downside, too if it means we are giving up the idea of achieving a genuine equal opportunity society. To do that means accepting the possibility that this racially polarized era in which we are living will never end. And that, perhaps, would be the greatest shame of all.
African Americans can and should take primary responsibility for strengthening their families and communities and supporting their political and social institutions. But it is a mistake to think that any single group in America -- be it all-white, African American, all-male or whatever -- can achieve and sustain a great deal of national worth and value without the others. And it's going to be necessary for those of us who believe that is true to stand up and continue to say so, instead of clamming up and going along uncritically with isolationist rhetoric when we know better.
At another time in America, we might have looked to leaders in Washington to lend a hand. Not now. Washington these days is in full retreat from its responsibilities. With racial tensions over the Simpson verdict still reverberating through the land, guess what the question of the hour is among the political junkies in this town? They're running around asking "How will the O. J. acquittal and the Million Man March' affect the presidential prospects of Colin Powell?" Go figure. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.