OJ Simpson and race - 13 October 1995

A friend of mine, a doctor in his late 50s, an affable gregarious man, not given to heavy meditation, or at least to expressing it, said to me the other evening with sudden and impressive seriousness: "There are three events that have affected my life and my view of things more than any others.

The assassination of President Kennedy, Vietnam," – he served as an Army Doctor there for a couple of years – "and the OJ Simpson trial." It seems an odd combination of significant events, but I think many millions of Americans have found the recent trial to have moved them in alarming ways, more deeply than they could possibly have imagined, on one national issue more than another, race and racism, they have had their morale bruised.

Before the trial, over 70 per cent of whites thought Mr Simpson guilty, over 80 per cent of blacks thought him innocent. A disheartening thing is that after nine excruciating months of the trial, the percentages, the balance of prejudice remains the same. The one startling new consequence was the tremendous scenes of rejoicing in the streets, in colleges everywhere, of blacks ecstatic with a verdict that has, one elated black put it: "The white establishment," – which means the Los Angeles Police Department – "failed to bring the black man down." The other disheartening feature to me, is the public outrage of feminist groups at a verdict which let off a known wife beater, as one thoughtful black member of the jury said: "We knew about that but this trial was not about wife beating, it was about a double murder".

When the trial was over, the judge told the jurors not to talk to any of the lawyers, but said that they were on their own if the vultures of the press descended, as they surely would and did. When eventually the jurors began to be interviewed on television, practically the first thing they were asked was: "How large a part did race play in your deliberations?" What they all said in slightly different ways was: "No, we never discussed race, we never brought up the fact of nine blacks on the jury." The natural reaction of most people, whites I've talked too was, "Well I mean come on".

It seems to me the question itself is hopeless, because surely in the unconscious of all of us, the first instinctive reaction, one way or the other would be an emotional response to the defendant as a black man. But since, without extraordinary psychiatric interference, none of us is aware of our unconscious motives, I believe the jurors in saying race was never a factor, and I believe old Sigmund Freud in saying, they didn't know it but it was bound to be. Their response does not mean, as it has been depressingly made to mean in the editorial columns of most newspapers, that this unconscious bias determined the verdict.

On the contrary, I was surprised – condescension of a white in listening to a highly intelligent black – I was surprised to hear that once they got in the jury room to deliberate all but two were already convinced of a reasonable doubt, and that they all came to doubt the same things after they reheard the chauffeur's testimony. Two big issues: one was the sparsity of Simpson's blood and the plausible testimony that it might have been planted, the other was the time it must have taken the murderer, especially if he was Simpson, to leave the scene of the crime, drive home, abandon the knife, get out of the blood drenched – wouldn't you think – clothes, hide or destroy them, bathe, get into fresh clothes and shoes and show no sign of any possible physical encounter when he was driven to the Los Angeles Airport, sat in the plane as a passenger, signed an autograph or two, got to Chicago went to the hotel, quickly returned home, was arrested got photographed from top to bottom and showed no scratch or bruise.

Much well tempered ridicule was written after the verdict about the fact that the recorded testimony, which the jury was supposed to consider took, up 45,000 pages of print, but after nine months of listening to innumerable witnesses most, and eventually all of the jury decided that these were the two decisive issues. The little time and the appearance of a bloody glove two months after the Los Angeles police had done all their thorough investigation, so far as I heard, no juror brought up the appalling error on the prosecution, side of using as a witness, a detective who turned out to be a monster of lies and, quite open race hatred, but that too must have been a deciding factor, expressed or not.

Now that we are nursing the wounds – and I think they are very serious wounds in the American body, politic and social – now that we are nursing the wounds, the questions that arise go to the state of the relations between blacks and whites in the United States, and all the surveys and polls of the population after the trial, are asking such questions as: "Do you think relations between blacks and whites are better or worse than they were 20, 30 years ago?"

I wished they'd asked 40 years ago when the Supreme Court decision came through in the spring of 1954 to banish segregation in all public facilities. In the first place it was schools, but then by extensive law applied to theatres, restaurants, public lavatories, ball parks, name it.

On that great day in May 1954, I was with my then 14-year-old son up in Canada doing a story of the newly christened, about to be constructed Saint Lawrence Seaway. I well remember in the evening of seeing the Supreme Court's decision, which was to revolutionise racial relations, blanketed across the headlines of the Canadian paper, and my son and I raised a glass of mineral water, I'm sure to the day coming very soon, when negroes – as we then called them – would be able to work their way into what we were already calling, the mainstream of American society, instead of hiding in the shawls of lonely jobs. Even my 14-year-old, who has a good political instinct about what is possible as distinct from what is ideal or wonderful, did not fool himself that suddenly there'd be black bankers and lawyers all over the place.

What we did not anticipate was that blacks would rejoice with the same ecstatic expectations of the black nations who had thrown off the colonial yoke, and danced to fireworks on the day of a uhuru freedom. I don't know who said it, but some people are wonderful at burning down the old building, but very poor at building the new, and we have seen in the great majority of those freed colonial nations, that sooner than later, they were taken over by a dictator. What happened here in those 40 years?

Let's be clear right away, great and far reaching improvements in quite a lot of black life – far greater than in any other country that harbours a black minority and still on the whole sees it employed in menial jobs – the emergence of a black middle class. Even 30 years ago, my bank manager was a black woman, on television sets beginning in the 60s, the sergeant major, the floor manager has been a black. There have been black mayors in the 12 largest cities, a black chief of staff of the United States Armed Forces, and an actual majority of voters who would vote for him over President Clinton so on and on. But what we did not notice is that in 1954 and in the next two decades more, two generations, the blacks had miraculous hopes like the colonials celebrating uhuru, but they have slowly learnt that race feeling is deeper than they guessed and that there may never be a day when all whites will think it normal to work and play and live with all blacks. That day is not in sight.

Years ago, 25 to be exact I wrote that ultimately, whenever that is, the black man will gain and enjoy no more freedom than the white man, in life not just in law, will want to give him. I believe that's the gist of it today.

And now this very week, we've seen a new extension, an eruption if you like of racial impatience – I think that's the word – not only blacks but Hispanics and many other immigrant peoples – what we now call ethics – also had too rosy expectations. They're just beginning to learn what the Irish and the Jews and others learned bitterly through the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century: that the new world does not always mean a new life, that the streets of New York are not paved with gold. I've always held that the root and comical branch of American humour is that of the soured immigrant, Mark Twain out west, Woody Allen speaking for the cities. What I've called the new eruption is the increasingly public expression of protest of ethnic peoples against white America, which showed itself in many parades last Monday on Columbus, Christopher Columbus Day.

In the last tidal wave of immigration at the turn of century, the incoming pool of millions however they prospered, wanted to become Americans, knew their best future was as Americans, speaking for instance, the English language. This is no longer true. We keep being told we now inhabit a multi-cultural country, but now the multi-culturalists say that means that no culture is better than any other, no language ought to be supreme or official, including English.

The crisis we're moving towards is, I'm afraid, the fracturing of American society, nothing less than the breakdown or break-up of the union. "E Pluribus Unum" is on the seal of the United States: out of many one. We are losing the aim of becoming one and being asked to rejoice, simply and wildly, in the many.

NOTE: AC says: 'There have been black mayors in the 12 largest cities, a black chief of staff of the United States Armed Forces...'

He's referring to Colin Powell, who was Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, not chief of staff of the United States Armed Forces, which isn't a real post.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.