In the late 1980s, when we as a nation began to see that the Cold War was being won and the Evil Empire abroad defeated, our unresolved race problem began to make its way forward, toward central concern, demanding resolution. In this process, the national family, as General Colin Powell would say, has engaged in four national conversations. Each has been driven by the mass of ordinary people, quite apart from the political class, which has stood aside in wary observation. Each has focused on a specific man as a proxy for these family discussions. The core of the overall debate has had to do with the belief among many, perhaps most, white Americans that people with black skin tend to be fundamentally, genetically different than whites in other ways -- intellectually inferior and physically superior. Two books by non-black conservatives tending in that direction have been the subject of intense discussion during this past year: “The Bell Curve” by a white Charles Murray; and “The End of Racism,” by a light brown Dinesh D’Souza. The shared national experiences surrounding the four black men have confronted us all with these racist assumptions.
Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson was the first to come center stage, a physical black man accused of molesting a physical black woman. There followed Judge Clarence Thomas, an intellectual black man accused of sexually harassing an intellectual black woman. Then we discussed O.J. Simpson, a physical black man accused of murdering a physical white woman. Finally, we have General Colin L. Powell, an intellectual black man in a physical profession, who appears to approach the national ideal as a husband, father and citizen. The shared experience of national conversation about so weighty a matter as our racial divide is a marvelous phenomenon, particular to this special country. The rest of the world family is not equipped to handle such delicate issues, yet still watches in appreciation, hoping to somehow share in our social progression.
The first discussion, surrounding Mike Tyson, was the easiest to develop and conclude. The national family agreed or at least accepted his guilt and that justice was served by his prison sentence. For white America, the stereotype of the physical black man unable to control his lust was reinforced. For black America, Tyson was surely an embarrassment in that regard, but more to the point, his offense was beyond reasonable doubt and it was clearly black-against-black crime. There was really little serious hesitation from the black community, which has an enormous stake in our criminal justice system. There is no other country in the world that tilts its criminal justice system so decidedly in favor of presumed innocence -- a distinct advantage to a besieged minority. It is because of this wisdom on the part of the founding fathers that a nation of such diversity in religion, culture and national background -- our mosaic, as the Pope calls it -- could live together in such remarkable harmony.
The second discussion involved the Senate trial of Clarence Thomas, which glued us together at our television sets for a disquisition that has had no counterpart anywhere in the world. At the outset, white and black Americans found themselves believing him guilty as charged, of sexual harassment. Anita Hill’s accusations seemed to leave no room for presumed innocence. Yet at the conclusion of the trial, the “high-tech lynch mob” of white men had concluded beyond reasonable doubt that he was worthy of appointment to the nation’s highest court. The opinion polls indicated a 2-to-1 majority believed Judge Thomas, not Ms. Hill. Having first been impressed with her sincerity, I was totally and completely persuaded that he was as innocent as a lamb, based on the mountain of inconsistencies in her recollections. Four years later, having read everything published on the subject since then, I am even more persuaded that justice was done. Yet a great body of Americans apparently still believe that Clarence Thomas was guilty as charged.
In our third shared national experience on the race issue, we had General Colin Powell surfacing in the court of public opinion, with a positive approval rating at 60%, only one point behind the Sovereign Pontiff. It remains my belief that ordinary Americans, white and black, have elevated him for a very specific reason. We glued ourselves to the television sets during the Gulf War, and there we would find a military leader who knew how to win with an economy of human life. Here was a powerful black man in a physical profession, whose intellect led him in the direction of restraint. For a people starved for national leadership, Colin Powell has been a godsend. There are already 1.2 million copies of My American Journey in print, and it appears that Powell is becoming more, not less, popular every time he opens his mouth. He may be our next President, but even if he is not, we all know he is ripening toward some position of political responsibility that will make him one of the most important leaders on earth.
In our fourth discussion linked through our television sets, the trial of O.J. Simpson demonstrated something of incredible importance to black America. That is, we have finally reached a point in our national family that a physical black man could be tried for murdering a beautiful, blonde white woman, that a mountain of evidence would seem to point toward his guilt, that almost all of white America would believe in his guilt, and yet the law of presumed innocence peculiar to our nation would free him on the reasonable doubt of a jury of his peers.
Those white Americans who remain totally persuaded of Simpson’s guilt, and are shocked to see blacks celebrating the verdict, need not fear that the festivities are in any way perverse. Quite the contrary. This has been a milestone that gives black Americans great hope that the national racial divide can be bridged. John Winfrey, a 22-year-old student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, told The New York Times moments after the verdict that it was “the fairest trial any black man in America” had ever received. In any other country in the world, the facts would have condemned O.J. Only in America would the law protect him as it did. If this were not the case, if the jury had been forced by form and tradition to return a guilty verdict, we now would be at a grave barrier in our attempt to bridge the nation’s racial divide.
I had not watched any of the trial, but took the word of family and friends who concluded that O.J. was guilty as charged. The only thing that weighed against this narrow survey of public opinion was a conversation my wife had with John Mackey, the onetime Baltimore Colt, who was at Jack Kemp’s 60th birthday party last July 13. Mackey, who was the NFL player representative and knew O.J. well, told her and a few others he was sure O.J. was innocent, for a variety of reasons, none of which seemed persuasive. The night before the verdict, Patricia told me she believed O.J. was guilty on the evidence, but that he would be acquitted, and that she herself had developed a reasonable doubt, perhaps with the seed planted by Mackey. It occurred to me that a majority of the black Americans were for acquittal because they are in a communication network where similar seeds had been planted. They had begun with a presumption of innocence because they wanted to believe O.J. was not guilty, and thus were able to find reasonable doubt where white Americans could not as easily do so. To those friends who now tell me they remain disgusted with the verdict, I can only suggest that in a larger context the experience has been profoundly positive and profoundly important, a catharsis for black America that had to happen before we could bridge the gulf between us.
The day after the verdict, an official in the Chinese Embassy in Washington called, to invite me to a dinner next week. He wanted to discuss the O.J. decision, noting his sorrow for the family of the victims. Yes, I explained, but in our system we bend over backwards to protect the innocent, and this is one of the reasons why the United States is now the world’s only superpower, and how China cannot hope to ever regain its position as the Middle Kingdom on earth unless it follows our lead in such matters. I told him also about our national conversation on the race issue, and the progress we are making. He seemed to understand. We should all try to.