No way out of the black ghetto: The OJ Simpson case articulates the racist fears of middle America, says Kenan Malik

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The Independent Online
A BLACK sporting superstar, a glamorous white wife, a messy double murder, a dramatic car chase - this could be the plot of John Grisham's next novel. Instead, the narrative unfolds live on prime-time television. No wonder the United States has been captivated by the OJ Simpson case.

This is more than simply a salacious tale of a fallen sports idol, though. It has become symbolic of the crisis of black America. The question that the Simpson case raises for both black and white Americans is not just whether the man is guilty, but what it says about the place of black people in contemporary American society.

Long before the trial, we can already see that it will not only be Simpson in the dock, but the whole of black America. And it will not only be the defendant who will face cross- examination, but the very capacity of black Americans to integrate. Even more than the case of Mike Tyson, the OJ Simpson trial is likely to polarise the US along racial lines.

'Say it isn't so,' sobbed a young black fan on a television show last week. 'This keeps happening to our heroes.' And so it does. First we had Mike Tyson jailed for the rape of Desiree Washington. Then we had Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, the basketball superstar, who, after he announced he was HIV-positive, was condemned for living a life of pathological promiscuity. Then, of course, there was Michael Jackson and the allegations of child abuse. The former mayor of Washington, Marion Barry, has been convicted of dealing in crack. The rap star Snoop Doggy Dog faces murder charges. And now OJ Simpson.

OJ Simpson always seemed different from these others because he did not seem so black. 'OJ crossed racial barriers,' said one American commentator last week, 'because he was just a good, decent human being.'

'He was always trustworthy and pleasant,' wrote another. 'He never came across as some kind of pretentious who-cares-about-my-public big shot.'

In other words, he was not like Tyson or Johnson, because he 'played the white man'. Simpson was suave, sophisticated and safe, a black man who seemed to fit seamlessly into white high society. He had graduated from the football field to Hollywood films, television commercials and the celebrity lecture circuit. If someone like Simpson cannot make it, many Americans are asking, can any black man?

This whole debate, however, tells us less about the state of black America than it does about how black people are perceived in America. There is something distasteful about discussing fallen black heroes in terms of their racial background. After all, the misdemeanours of white celebrities are never discussed in racial terms. When the ice- skater Tonya Harding was accused of having instigated the attack on her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan, no one suggested that the integrity of white America was at stake. When Woody Allen was accused of child abuse, no commentator regarded this as a blow to the Jewish community. So why should discussion of the failures of black celebrities always be in the context of the needs or aspirations of black America? The answer is that such cases articulate the worst racist fears of middle America.

For most Americans there are only two kinds of blacks: the underclass and the role models. In the imaginations of mainstream, middle Americans, tucked away safe in their suburban enclaves, the underclass has become symbolic of everything that is unAmerican and the inner-city ghetto, the repository of the enemy within. 'Behind the ghetto's crumbling walls,' Time magazine has suggested, 'lives a large group of people who are more intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anybody has imagined. They are the unreachables: the American underclass.'

At the other end of the scale is the handful of black role models, largely sporting, music and media figures. In the perceptions of many Americans, black figures such as Simpson, Carl Lewis or Bill Cosby have made it by renouncing the values of the ghetto. But every time a black role model is brought down to earth, the cry is that even the successful black figures are no different from the rest. 'You can take the black man out of the ghetto but you cannot take the ghetto out of the black man' is the subtext that runs through this entire discussion. However many opportunities you give them, middle America seems to be saying, blacks just cannot become decent honest citizens like the rest of us.

These themes have been most evident in the Mike Tyson case. At his trial and since, the prosecution and the press have paraded before us all the worst nightmares of middle-class America. Here is a black man from the ghetto whose mother was unmarried and lived on welfare, a teenager who was involved with gangs and drugs; a sportsman who achieved fame through brute strength, not brains; a black male whose downfall was his insatiable sexual appetite. It would be difficult to think of more racial stereotypes to pin on to him.

Already OJ Simpson is attracting similar stories. His fall has been even more precipitate because he seemed so far removed from the stereotype. Tyson could be portrayed as 'the beast from the ghetto'. Simpson was almost white. But now all the old ghetto stories are beginning to surface: about how he was born in the rough Potrero Hill district of San Francisco; about how he was regularly in trouble with the police as a teenager; about how, at the age of 15, he was arrested after a gang fight; about how he was encouraged to take up sport to channel him away from a life of crime. Now he, too, seems to have shown that the ghetto has never left him.

After Simpson's arrest the Los Angeles Police Department faced considerable criticism for having allowed him to escape in the first place. 'If it had been any other black man,' said a young African- American angrily, 'he would have been arrested, handcuffed and thrown in the slammer so quick he wouldn't have known what hit him.' He was articulating his anger about the LAPD's racist attitudes towards ordinary blacks. White Americans have been making the same point - but for very different reasons. What they want to know is why Simpson was treated like a celebrity, when he is just a black man.

(Photograph omitted)