On October 3, 1995, a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Watching the news that evening I saw film of a group of young African-Americans—I think they were college students—bursting out in cheers and applause when they heard the verdict.
I was puzzled by their reaction; it seemed to me that they were celebrating a miscarriage of justice. I wondered how anyone could cheer when two people had been brutally murdered and their likely killer had been set free. I had not viewed the trial as “the case of a famous black man who had allegedly killed his white ex-wife and her white friend” but rather as the trial of a man who had allegedly murdered two human beings.
Clearly that group of young people saw it differently.
I suspect that their celebration was not fueled by a belief that Simpson had not committed the crimes and thus an innocent man had been freed. I am certain that they did not think that a person who killed two other people should not be held accountable for his crimes.
I think maybe they were celebrating because the legal system that had in so many cases failed to provide justice to African-Americans had, in a very public way, worked in favor of a black person. Perhaps, while I’m sure those celebrating held no animosity toward the victims and probably felt sympathy for their families, there was even a wry pleasure taken in the very real possibility that Simpson had actually done the deed; after all, how many times had African-Americans been victimized—suspected of, charged with, and even convicted of crimes they did not commit— by the justice system? How many times had it seemed that whites had been unfairly acquitted of crimes against blacks (the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had just occurred in 1992)?
But I’m not black. So I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what those students were thinking and feeling. I’m admittedly guessing and that’s dangerous.
What I am is a white man who has always lived in a predominantly white culture and so I have difficulty putting myself in the place of someone living as a member of a minority in that culture and dealing with systems of power that seem not to offer justice to me and my kind.
I have listened to African-American commentators talk during the coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri situation—and these are very accomplished, professional people—about how they had to teach their children, and especially their sons, how to act when confronted by a police officer; they offered such advice as “Keep your hands in plain sight” and “Don’t talk back.” The shocking thing to me was that they had to assume that their sons would be so confronted, and probably confronted many times, whether or not they had done anything wrong.
My father never had such a conversation with me. The assumption in our house was that police officers (and all people in authority, for that matter) were our friends who were there to protect us. The further assumption was that if a police officer stopped me he would have a very good reason for doing so and that I’d probably be safer in jail than I would be at home under such circumstances.
So now we have the Ferguson crisis before us. I do not know what actually happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I do not know if justice was or was not done in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I do know that there are serious systemic issues in Ferguson that hopefully its citizens will work together on improving. I also know that the rioting and looting hurt and don’t help the situation. I know that I have serious questions about the increasing militarization of our law enforcement entities and the possible role it plays in exacerbating such situations.
But I don’t know how black people in Ferguson, Missouri feel. Shoot, I don’t know how black people anywhere feel. How could I? I’m a white man in Fitzgerald, Georgia.
Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t know how other white people feel, either. Sometimes some of them say and do things that puzzle me just as much as did the reaction of that group of black students to the Simpson verdict. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how anybody else feels. And sometimes I’m not real sure that I really know how I feel.
It seems to me that one key to improving race relations and other kinds of relations in this country is for each one of us to face up to who we are and to how our individual identity is shaped by such factors as race, economic status, education, sexuality, religion, genetics, and community. We need to understand and accept who we are, insofar as we are able to see who we are, so that we can analyze the place from which we begin to deal with situations that challenge our societal relationships and with the people involved in those situations and relationships.
As for me, I’m a white straight middle-class professional Protestant Southern male who is respected in my community so that the assumption about me of those in power is that I am not in any way a threat to anybody. While I would not go so far as to say that I’m treated with deference, I would go so far as to say that I am always given the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a close call, I can live comfortably in the knowledge that it’s probably going to go my way.
In other words, I have it made; the only way I could have it more made in this country, or at least in my part of it, would be to have more money.
It is very helpful for me and my kind to remember that before we claim to know too much and before we talk too much about the experiences and reactions of people who don’t have the privilege of having it made.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that that reality really ought to have a good bit of impact on how I feel about, think about, pray about, and treat other people, even those that I don’t understand.
Which is, after all, everybody …