Power of race warps our perspective

Ten years later, it feels like a fever dream.

There is to it a sense of unreality. You want to say, did that actually happen? But you know it did. You saw it. You were there.

Ten years ago, O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder and the whole country went nuts. Not all at once, granted. In the beginning, there was just amazement at the unfolding drama. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman found savagely butchered and then, a low-speed police chase of a Ford Bronco, a suicidal O.J. in the back.

Back then, it was just a bizarre thing in the news. But Simpson was black and the people he was accused of killing were white, so inevitably, it became a racial morality play, an object lesson on our schisms of perception and chasms of communication.

What I recall most from those days is the anger, the free-floating racial hostility one encountered everywhere.
I’m thinking of a white colleague with whom I was having a minor and, I thought, friendly disagreement one day about some aspect of the trial. Suddenly he opened up on me, saying I was one of those blacks too blinded by blackness to see Simpson’s obvious guilt.

He stalked away still ranting and I don’t think he ever heard me say — though I said it several times — that I thought Simpson was guilty, too.

At that moment, I was not somebody he knew. I was simply blackness, with all its perceived blights and inadequacies. It was a scene that was being enacted nationwide. And if you’ve never had your individuality denied by somebody you thought you knew, you can’t begin to understand what a betrayal it is.

But then, the Simpson case was a racial Rorschach test, an ink blot upon which the nation projected its deepest irresolution about sex and race.

White people looked at it and saw the sad story of a man who fell to earth after seeming to have “transcended” his race. Blacks looked at it and saw fuel for the conspiracy theory that says “they” will always bring a successful brother down. Whites glanced again and pronounced themselves shocked — absolutely shocked! — that police officers like Mark Fuhrman exist, just as black people have always said. And blacks looking at that ink blot gloated at Simpson’s acquittal as if it was the Voting Rights Act, as though it had some bearing on their lives, said something about their circumstances, proved anything beyond the fact that a rich man can afford a different brand of justice than you and I.

Black and white, people said such hateful things. Black and white, we reverted so easily to our basest selves.

I’m reminded of how, when the power goes out and darkness descends on the city, law-abiding people will break department store windows to steal DVD players and George Foreman grills. There is a giddy sense of license, a sense that accountability no longer applies. The darkness seems to liberate something mean within. Seems to unleash the gremlins in our souls.

Ten years later, another prominent black man stands accused of another unspeakable crime against another white woman. And as Kobe Bryant prepares for trial, what’s surprising is what you don’t hear. The drums of race, so loudly beaten in 1994, are largely silent now.

I wish I knew what that means. Wish I could say with certainty that it represents newfound racial maturity. Maybe it does.

And maybe it is only cynicism that makes me doubt. But I am all too aware of the power of race to warp perspective, to make itself seem the only thing of importance, even in cases where it isn’t very important at all.

So 10 years later, what optimism I have is guarded at best, not unlike a city without power as twilight edges into the sky. I am wary of the darkness gathering.

And of the gremlins that sleep inside.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com