Facebook Twitter

THE SIMPSON DIVISION

SHARE THE SIMPSON DIVISION

The jury's verdict is in, but in a city once again divided along racial lines by a criminal court trial, the deliberations may only be just beginning.

Most whites believed O.J. Simpson was guilty. Most blacks thought him innocent. And neither could make sense of the other's point of view."People literally do not understand why people of another race are saying what they're saying. It's astonishing," said political science Professor Raphael Sonenshein. "It's a delicate time."

To most whites, the central question in the trial was whether Simpson was a murderer responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.

To most blacks, the issue was whether the system that brought Simpson to trial was tainted by racial bias.

The racial divisions over the case grew deeper as the trial progressed.

A poll released a month after the killings found 63 percent of whites said Simpson was guilty; 65 percent of blacks thought he was innocent.

An ABC News poll released last week found that 77 percent of whites believed him guilty, while 72 percent of blacks said he was innocent.

Reaction to Tuesday's verdict broke sharply along racial lines.

"The verdict struck a blow against racism," said Paulette Edwards, 37, a black woman from Los Angeles. "In this country, whether it be the north, south, east or west, many people feel if you are a black man, there is no justice."

David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative think tank, issued a statement condemning the verdicts.

"This disgrace may have set back race relations in this country 30 years," said Horowitz, who is white.

Larry Bumgardner, who teaches law and political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., said it's too soon to say what impact the case will have on race relations in Los Angeles.

"I think we're going to have to wait and see," he said. "I don't think there will be an immediate backlash. I think there will be some outrage."

Bumgardner questioned the assumption that Simpson's acquittal was based on the ethnic makeup of the jury, which included nine blacks, two whites and one Latino.

"If the racial issue played out that way, you'd expect a hung jury," he said. "They had to get some non-African-American votes to go along with this. It tells me that jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I'm trying to say that I think this jury was doing the best job it could. I hope that's the case. I hope it's not a racially based decision," Bumgardner said.

Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade and a prominent leader in the city's black community, said that claiming the verdict was race-based was in itself a racist view.

"It is condescending to African-Americans on the jury to suggest their decision was based only on race," Bakewell said. "We are intelligent people. We can make decisions just like anybody else. We got the evidence. We weighed the evidence."

But across Los Angeles, and much of the nation, the verdicts clearly were being viewed through the prism of race.

For many blacks, the racial element of the case was driven home by former police detective Mark Fuhrman, who discovered the now famous bloody glove at Simpson's Brentwood estate.

Fuhrman was heard using racial slurs in tape-recorded interviews with an aspiring screenwriter. Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. labeled him a "genocidal racist."

"Mark Fuhrman confirmed what most African-Americans have felt right along and known right along," said John Mack, president of the Urban League. "In South Central Los Angeles, too many Mark Fuhrmans have harassed and brutalized people."

But many whites have a far different perception of police, Mack acknowledged.

"Most white Angelenos found the idea that Mark Fuhrman may have moved evidence, or planted the glove, they found that bizarre," Mack said. "In the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles, people have a user-friendly view of the police department."

It's the difference in perceptions about police that has left whites and blacks seeing the Simpson case in such sharply contrasting terms, he said.

"I think that the polls are probably accurate - they reflect the real racial divide among us," Mack said.

He said he expected an increased polarization along racial lines no matter what the verdict was.

"I am concerned over the fallout," Mack said. "I think this trial and the reaction along racial lines demonstrated how far we have to go to mend the racial divide between African-Americans and whites."

Curtis Owens, executive director of the African-American Unity Center, said that whites have been slow to acknowledge police misconduct in the past.

"We know of incidents where it has happened before, and it has fallen on deaf ears," Owens said.

But others place the blame for heightening racial tensions at least in part on Cochran, whose fiery closing argument suggested jurors send a message against racism.

Cochran drew criticism for comparing Fuhrman with Hitler and for using security guards from the controversial Nation of Islam to accompany him to court in the final days of the trial.

"This guy is a racist, that's all he is," Francis Jansen, 62, of suburban Northridge, said.

He said he thinks too many black leaders play up tensions to keep themselves in power.

"They say `Vote for me because I'm black,' " Jansen said. "Those people are not helping the problem."

In a news conference after the verdicts, Cochran defended his tactics and the role race played in the trial. "What I said before is race plays a part of everything in America. We need to understand that," Cochran said.

"In this case, I think that from the standpoint of race, it was introduced by this witness Fuhrman. This stuff about playing a race card is preposterous.

"It is malpractice if a man has racist views in a case and the lawyer doesn't pursue that," Cochran said. "You have to pursue it because that's your job."

Simpson defense lawyer Robert Shapiro said he did not want to play the race card but that he was overruled by Cochran.

"My position was always the same, that race would not and should not be a part of this case," Shapiro said in an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC. "I was wrong. Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck."

Shapiro added that he was surprised and deeply offended when Cochran likened Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and racism in America to the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War II.

Some said they believe that the race issue was present in the case before it was ever raised in court.

"The case would have been about race whether they talked about race or not, by virtue of the characterization of the parties. You have a black defendant, you have two white victims," said Leonard Tyler, 43, a suburban Chatsworth law clerk.

Sonenshein, a professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, said that while it's difficult to guess how the tension raised by the trial will play out, whites may react at the ballot box.

"Whites don't use protests very much. They vote, they withdraw or they vote down things, like tax measures," Sonenshein said.

Sonenshein, author of the 1993 book "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles," said the trial comes at a time when the city is seeing little leadership on racial issues.

"We don't see the bully pulpit of the mayor's office being used as a voice for racial healing," he said.

People on both sides of the racial divide opened by the Simpson case should try to see the sincerity of the other side's position, Son-en-shein said.

"This would be a good time for reflection," he said.

Mack said that the only way to prevent new cases from further dividing residents along racial lines is for people of all backgrounds to press to rid the Los Angeles Police Department's ranks of officers like Fuhrman.

"Los Angeles will never be the city any of us want to be until this problem is truly addressed. People have to stop burying their heads in the sand," he said. "I really believe the jury is still out on L.A."

Said Bakewell: "L.A. should move to recognizing that there is a race problem. There is a tremendous gulf between blacks and whites in Los Angeles and in America. We cannot just sweep that under the rug."

And in the aftermath of the verdicts, there was plenty of anger to go around. At one point Tuesday afternoon, a pair of white women in designer jogging suits approached Simpson's Brentwood estate shaking their heads.

"I feel like rioting," one of the women said. "If I knew how, I would."