Black myths and white lies

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The Independent Online
American commentators have seized on the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial and the lack of public interest in President Clinton's simultaneously broadcast state of the union address to deplore the abysmal state of race relations, the intellectual shallowness of their compatriots.

Maybe things are not so bad. Maybe the racial divide is not as wide as last week's polls of black and white opinion would suggest. And maybe the public's boredom with the political process conceals a deeper wisdom, one based on the knowledge displayed by the majority who did not take the trouble to vote in the last election, namely that no matter what the politicians in Washington say the juggernaut keeps trundling on regardless. For what do the differences between the two main parties add up to? What is in dispute in what passes for the Great Washington Debate? At most, one per cent of the allocations in the federal budget.

If you factor in the general disrepute into which the political system has fallen, reduced as it has been into a competition to raise money for campaign advertisements, then it is neither surprising nor particularly laughable that television viewers should be more captivated by real life drama than by political histrionics; by the travails of a fallen celebrity than by the rhetorical pieties of their unctuous commander-in-chief.

More difficult to dismiss is the lament that the Simpson trials have exposed a deep schism between black and white Americans. In the first trial a predominantly black jury found the former football hero and movie star innocent of murder; in the second an overwhelmingly white jury found him liable for the deaths of his wife and her friend Ronald Goldman. Polls taken after both trials showed that most blacks persisted in the belief that he was innocent, most whites that he was guilty.

Panning out to society at large, one finds much evidence to support the thesis that blacks and whites inhabit two different worlds. The average black person earns less than the average white; black people are more prone to use drugs; there are proportionally more single black mothers than single white mothers; there are proportionately more blacks on Death Row, and in prison, than there are whites. A recent report showed that 1.46 million black men, nearly one in seven of voting age, have lost their right to vote because they have been convicted of a crime.

But these facts and figures tell us as much about poverty in America as about race. Perhaps the real lesson of the Simpson trials, in particular the first one, is that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Had Mr Simpson not been able to afford his "dream team" of lawyers, had he been obliged to depend on the services of a public defender, the weight of evidence against him was such that he would undoubtedly have been found guilty first time around. A poor, unknown person in his predicament, black or white, would very likely have ended up on Death Row. By contrast the prosecution in Mr Simpson's criminal trial decided early on not to seek the death sentence because they suspected that in such an event no jury would find "OJ" the celebrity guilty.

Another debate that the trial might have provoked is whether to abolish the death penalty. If there is one thing the verdicts have shown it is that the justice system is not infallible. But the question how one can possibly endorse something as absolute as condemning a person to death does not appear to have penetrated the public consciousness.

Perhaps if the politicians were to re-examine America's attitude to poverty, the truth held to be self-evident that life is a jungle in which the strong prosper and the weak merit less pity than scorn, then Washington might see some real debate and television viewers might be persuaded to tune in when a presidential address clashes with a soap opera.

Lacking the courage and vision to address the core problems in society, the politicians and commentators dwell on issues where there exists a moral consensus. Notable among these is what President Clinton calls the cancer of racial bigotry. And, yes, experience shows there are some white employers who would rather not employ blacks; that often there is subtle discrimination in the workplace; that there are many police officers who pick gratuitously on young black males, the chief reason why so many black people are disposed to accept the possibility that detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department planted evidence on Mr Simpson.

There is no doubt about it. Racial discrimination has not perished from the face of the earth, nor will it soon. What, however, may be disputed is the current wisdom that the discrimination is getting worse, that the divide between black and white is widening. For evidence abounds to indicate that the opposite is true.

While black Americans are certainly poorer than white Americans, they used to be a lot poorer than they are now. The three decades since the passing of the Civil Rights Act have seen a spectacular growth in the black middle class, a tripling in the number of black doctors and lawyers. As for blacks holding political office, the number of black mayors has risen from below 50 in 1970 to above 300 today.

And then there are the black national heroes. Before his fall from grace, Mr Simpson used to be one, a figure as popular as Bobby Charlton in England. But there is also Bill Cosby, the man they call "America's dad" whose recent tragedy, the murder of his son, precipitated outpourings of dismay across the colour lines not seen since the death of Martin Luther King.

The most popular female on television, and by far the richest, is Oprah Winfrey. Evidence of the extraordinary grip she has on the national imagination was provided by her decision to introduce into her talk show a segment called "Oprah's Book Club". By highlighting in each show a favourite book, she has begun to achieve the impossible: transform America into a nation of readers. Demand in bookstores around the country for the books she promotes has staggeringly exceeded supply.

And then there is Colin Powell. A black man of Jamaican parents, he rose from his position as the most powerful general in the armed forces to become America's most popular political figure. Mr Clinton has admiited that he would have lost the last election had the Republicans chosen General Powell as their candidate.

In answer to the argument that Powell, Cosby and Winfrey demonstrate how far blacks have come, those who would insist that race relations are deteriorating might say, yes, but these are mere symbols, exceptions to the rule. Reality is represented by the crack-addicted black mother whom society's white masters never gave a chance. But to highlight one point at the expense of the other is to undermine the value of the symbolism America's black heroes represent, to ignore the sea-change in racial attitudes that their national prominence defines.

The few openly declared white racists remaining are on the defensive, cowering in dark holes. Like Mark Fuhrman, the detective in the Simpson case who was cast out into the wilderness after a tape-recording was played in court in which it was heard that he had referred to black people as "niggers". Or like the misfits responsible for the spate of black church burnings last year in the south. President Clinton alluded to them in his state of the union address on Tuesday, mentioning them as "evidence of abiding bigotry and intolerance". And while it is good that the President should set an example of vigilance on racial matters, a no less valuable point he failed to make was that the church burnings had brought black and white people closer together. A de facto apartheid continues to be the unsurprising legacy of the south's ugly racial history. But look at what happened after the churches had been demolished and you find that the white communities turned out to help, eroding - if not annihilating - centuries of mistrust by offering money and their own labour to rebuild the churches.

The truth is that in a short span of human history racial attitudes have softened dramatically. In other respects America has become more barbaric, notably in its rediscovered enthusiasm for the death penalty and its increasing reluctance to show compassion to the poor. But as far as relations between blacks and whites are concerned it is misguided to ignore, and churlish to belittle, the progress that has been made.