Poor blacks in fear of white backlash

The right is already reaping the harvest of a 'political' verdict, writes John Carlin
Washington - There is a whiff of white backlash in the air since the not-guilty verdict in the OJ Simpson trial. Jesse Jackson says his office in Washington has been inundated with hate calls, so does a black church minister in Los Angeles. Radio talk show hosts say they have been besieged by angry white callers. Even white liberals have been outraged by what they see as a gross miscarriage of justice.

As for Mr Simpson himself, once the party's over he will look around him, glance at the security guards protecting his home 24 hours a day and contemplate the thought that while he escaped jail he will be a prisoner for the rest of his days of the fear that a deranged white man will gun him down.

The spur to white indignation has been the feeling that for many black people the Simpson case was not a murder trial but a political trial, that the jurors - nine of them black - took Johnnie Cochran, Mr Simpson's lawyer, at his word and used the verdict to send a message to the white establishment, to the forces of law and order, that they were sick of racial discrimination. The point was not whether Mr Simpson had murdered his wife, the point was - and black people have been saying as much - to get him off.

One juror gave a black power salute in the courtroom after the verdict was announced; another said he had been convinced before the trial began that Mr Simpson was innocent. One black former member of the jury who stepped down halfway through the trial said the verdict "was a great day for African Americans".

On hearing the verdict on Tuesday a throng of law students in a hall at Washington's all-black Howard University jumped up in celebration, cheering and dancing in scenes reminiscent of Soweto when Nelson Mandela was freed. Chris Darden, the black prosecution lawyer, has been accused of being an Uncle Tom. He has received death threats and been forced to hire bodyguards.

The question now is what form, if any, a white backlash will take. Already it is possible to detect in white people the attitude that with Tuesday's triumph the slate of historical injustices endured by blacks has been wiped clean. "OK. You've had your day in the sun," is a prevailing white view. "Now the playing field is finally level. So stop whining and stop asking for special favours."

One thing that can be confidently expected is that the Republican impetus to stamp out affirmative action and cut welfare spending for the poor will gather new energy - and possibly new allies. Proposals for tougher laws to protect "victim's rights", a catchword of the US right, will generate a wider appeal among the voters of Middle America.

For few people are under any illusion that when politicians talk about fighting crime, they mean black crime: figures released this week revealed that on any given day one in three black Americans in their twenties find themselves under the supervision of the criminal justice system. While blacks make up 12 per cent of the national population, they make up more than 50 per cent of the prison population. Complaints that these figures illustrate the institutional discrimination to which black people are subject in America will now fall on ears even more deaf than before.

The price of OJ's triumph may be high for black Americans. A public defender in Los Angeles said yesterday that there was a great deal of foreboding among her colleagues. Public defenders are the lawyers provided by the state to people who cannot afford to pay millions of dollars, as Mr Simpson did, for a legal "dream team". In other words, the vast majority of Americans who pass before the courts depend on public defenders for their freedom, and often for their lives.

"Already our clients have the odds stacked heavily against them," said the Los Angeles public defender, who did not wish to be named. "We're now bracing ourselves for tougher laws; tougher juries, if they happen to be white; and humiliated cops out to get revenge."

The laws in California are already tough enough. Within 20 minutes of the Simpson verdict being delivered a black drug addict stood in another Los Angeles court awaiting sentence for possession of crack cocaine. This was his third conviction. California has recently introduced a law known as "three strikes and you're out" - meaning that after a third conviction the authorities lock you up and throw away the key. The black addict received a sentence of 25 years - the same as Mr Simpson would have received had he been found guilty.

"Three strikes and you're out" is sure now to generate a stronger appeal than ever in states beyond California. And it is blacks who will suffer the worst of the consequences. Poor blacks - not rich blacks like Mr Simpson.