After OJ, a black president?

Black alienation is erupting in the US. But there could be a positive outcome, says Rupert Cornwell

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Mercifully, it is all but over. Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito and the rest of them will no longer hold millions of American lives in thrall. Armies of couch-potato lawyers will disperse, CNN must find new programming schedules. And finally the only heroes of this wretched saga, the 12 jurors and two alternates, will shortly be able to resume a normal existence after nine months of virtual imprisonment. But for America a greater, more perilous ordeal may only be starting. As the Trial of the Century winds down, in the dock is not merely OJ Simpson, but race relations in America at the end of the 20th century.

A month or two ago, for whites at least, the connection scarcely arose. Simpson was black, yes, but the colour of his skin was irrelevant. He had made his way in a white world, had white friends, even a white wife. His trial, whites assured themselves, was not about America's oldest, most intractable problem, but those more comfortable issues of money, celebrity, and whether some of the priciest lawyers in the land could extricate a former sporting superstar from an apparently open-and-shut double-murder rap. Then came Mark Fuhrman.

After his perjury, his proven racism, and his taped bragging that the Los Angeles police routinely framed black suspects, even whites convinced by the seemingly irrefutable DNA evidence were no longer sure. For blacks, of course, Fuhrman was confirmation of what they always knew, that for them "justice" was a joke. The disproportionate numbers of blacks in America's prisons, the Rodney King case, now OJ - illustrations all of the America described by Cochran to the annual Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington last weekend, a country of "barbed wire from sea to shining sea".

Whites, not blacks, were shocked by Fuhrman. Whites, decent and god-fearing Caucasian Americans, were appalled that even after the Rodney King case law enforcement in LA might be little more than systematic racism. Now they understood why, from the moment it started, blacks had been as convinced of Simpson's innocence as they themselves were of his guilt. An ABC-News poll on Thursday, showing a 77 to 18 presumption of guilt among whites and an almost exactly opposite figure among blacks, was no longer irrational: merely another snapshot of a polarised country and a disquieting hint of what might lie ahead.

Consider, for a start, the "Million Man March," to be held in Washington in a fortnight's time. It is organised by the radical black leader Louis Farrakhan, whose Nation of Islam movement has been providing a bodyguard for Johnnie Cochran throughout the last week of the trial. Sanctioned by Jesse Jackson, the occasion could see the largest black gathering in the capital since Martin Luther King proclaimed "I have a dream" before 200,000 people in August 1963. The ostensible goal is to reassert the commitment of black males to family, work and self-advancement and loosen the stereotypes of violence, sexual irresponsibility, and despair which shackle black America. But what if, at that very moment, a jury 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles proves the expert predictions wrong and "white justice" nails OJ?

Combustibles enough are already in place - even if Simpson were to this day living in domestic bliss, plugging Hertz rental cars and doing the commentary at televised football games. Black unity may be the order of the hour, but the prime mover remains Farrakhan. His image may have softened of late. But for whites (and not a few blacks) he remains a divisive and threatening figure, an emblem of militancy, anti-Semitism and intolerance.

For grievances, however, Farrakhan need look no further than the Capitol Hill which overlooks the Mall where they will gather. Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democrat. But a Republican Congress is seeking deep cuts in welfare, the Medicaid scheme for the poor, and a host of other smaller programmes - all part of America's social safety net, whose reduction will hit blacks especially hard. A block behind the Capitol, the Supreme Court looks poised to strike down electoral districts artificially drawn to send minority representatives to to Washington. If it does, the seats of up to half the 38-strong Black Caucus in Congress will be at risk.

And then there is affirmative action, assailed by Republican presidential contenders and undermined by this summer's Supreme Court ruling overturning laws that helped minority-owned firms to win government contracts. Even desegregated school busing, that huge symbolic blow for racial equality, is being chipped at across the country. In short, a new and mean-spirited white Republican establishment seems bent on tearing up the achievements of 30 years of struggle for civil rights. And, say social Darwinians, why not? After all, blacks have had preferential treatment long enough: if they still cannot get ahead, then the fault must be largely theirs. Some middle-class and conservative blacks might agree: but not, surely, the vast majority of those who will flock to Farrakhan's banner on 16 October.

And yet, amid the alienation and division, an extraordinary phenomenon is at work. If an election were held tomorrow, Americans might very well elect a black man to their country's highest office. Now General Colin Powell's plans for the presidential campaign of 1996 are of course a mystery. The reasons for his popularity, however, are not. And that this popularity should rise just as the Simpson melodrama approaches its climax is entirely logical.

Thus far, Powellmania is a white phenomenon. Certainly blacks are proud of the general's achievements and well-disposed to his urgings to moderation, decency and common sense. As yet, however, they are uninclined to see him as a saviour. The Black Caucus dinner last weekend spoke volumes on the subject. It was General Powell who was officially honoured that evening - but the man who stole the show was Johnnie Cochran, expounding the "higher reason" of justice and civil rights involved in the Simpson case.

From there it was but a short step to the frightening passions of this past week. And who knows what their wider impact might be in the weeks and months ahead. Small wonder President Clinton's concern that the trial not become a symbol of America's racial divisions. But it may be too late. Who could not take emotional sides after listening on live television to OJ's lead lawyer describing the white Mark Fuhrman as a genocidal monster akin to Hitler - or the father of the murdered Ronald Goldman vent his fury at the "sick" and "disgusting" Cochran for shamelessly playing the race card to save a killer?

With the final verdict tempers may cool, especially if, as is widely expected, the predominantly black jury fails to convict. Even a hung jury, reckoned the most probable outcome, would buy time. But race, the rawest nerve of American society, has again been exposed, and healing will be required. Johnnie Cochran turned a millionaire black who moved in a privileged, affluent white world into an improbable martyr. Now, to bind its wounds, America may look to another black millionaire and honorary white, this one a former soldier on a book tour. Thus the Simpson case - a criminal, social and media extravaganza without equal in US history - might be midwife to another unparalleled event: a black president in the Oval Office.

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