At least there was one moment of visible black-and-white unity last week. It occurred on Tuesday, shortly after 10 a.m. Pacific time, when crowds of citizens, gathered together in the streets like extras in a War of the Worlds movie of the 1950s, stood staring up at outdoor television screens, waiting for the word.
They were united, briefly, in an anxious silence of the heart. As soon as the verdict was read, however, they split apart; they could watch themselves do it on the split screens. On one side jubilation, on the other dismay. Afterward it was said that America should have seen this coming, that the division of the races cut so deep, it ought to have been obvious that two nations had always been hiding in one.
Many white people, liberals especially, said that it had not been obvious to them at all. Yet when they gave the matter a minute's thought, they wondered why they had been so ready to praise the jury, which included nine African Americans, as unbiased if the verdict had been guilty. If one believed the jurors could honestly find the circumstantial evidence overwhelming, could they not also, just as honestly, find it unpersuasive? No, it was not the jury that was thinking in terms of categorical behavior; it was much of white America. And if that were so, the shock expressed at the polar reactions to the verdict was a Casablanca "shocked." Who was hiding what, from whom?
To many whites, O.J. entered the trial as a fellow white man and grew darker as the proceedings went on. He was the perfectly assimilated minority hero until he was associated with terrible crimes. Then he became just another black male under arrest, presumed to be guilty of everything. In their imagination he was transformed in the course of a year from one of their own to Bigger Thomas.
It could not have gone unnoticed by black Americans, who looked around them for the past year, that a great many whites seemed a bit overeager to hang another black man in spite of a prosecution case that was proved, in the very least, friable. How many jury trials of the old South came to mind? As O.J. became blacker for whites, he became blacker for blacks too, but the reception was quite different. They were willing to overlook the wife beater for the return of the native son.
Of course, it is possible to read too much into that single dramatic scene of division. Television had played the murder trial as a news-cum-soap opera maxiseries. Maybe the country was simply splitting into two camps of fans. As the verdict was read on TV, a hallful of law students at Howard University exploded out of their seats: they could have been cheering the victory of a black lawyer over the system, or perhaps they were cheering the system itself, since the jury had made it work for them. Even if the division displayed was real, it might not necessarily be as deep as was being said. Contrary to pop psychology, people usually behave least, not most, like themselves in moments of high excitement, and they are truer to their feelings in repose.