By Fawaz Turki
America may not witness another “trial of the century” later this year when George Zimmerman, a white-Hispanic American, appears in court to be tried for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager, but the country is surely poised for another “O.J. Simpson moment” — perhaps even a Rodney King moment should the verdict go against the expectations of the victim’s legion of supporters, who are convinced the murder was racially motivated.
That the state prosecutor’s decision to charge Zimmerman garnered front page news in virtually every national newspaper in the US last Thursday attests to the significance that Americans attach to the case, and to its potentially explosive consequences on race relations.
Not withstanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed all major forms of discrimination against African Americans, including racial segregation in schools and the workplace, American society, sadly, remains polarized along racial lines. Clearly you can legislate laws to guide the social contract, but you cannot legislate laws dictating how a mindset should perceive objective reality. A sensibility that had taken generations to insinuate itself into a community’s soul will take generations for that sensibility to be deflected from its archetypal roots.
Consider then, in this regard, the O.J. Simpson moment, when the black celebrity athlete was acquitted in 1995, by a predominantly African American jury, of the crime of having killed his estranged wife and her male companion, both white. Consider as well the Rodney King moment, when the “black everyman,” as he came to be known, became the victim in a police brutality case in 1991 involving four officers, all white, who were video-taped (by a bystander) striking him with their batons as he lay writhing on the ground, footage of which was aired by news agencies around the world. The predominantly white jury found three of the accused not guilty and failed to reach a verdict on the fourth.
And consider equally how a black jury looked at what everyone thought was overwhelming evidence against Simpson, including DNA analysis of the socks and the gloves, yet found him not guilty; and how though a white jury watched a video of four white Los Angeles police officers beating the bejesus out of Rodney King, they found three of the four not guilty of using excessive force.
In both trials it was clear that, like it or not, race was at the very heart of these emotionally charged cases. (The late Jonnie Cochran, Simpson’s flamboyant defense attorney, said at the time: “Race plays a role in everything in America and people need to stop ducking and dodging away from it.”) And given the racial composition of the juries and their obverse experiences with law enforcement in their respective communities, the verdicts were both predictable and inevitable.
What has entered the folklore in American popular culture since then was not just how these trials became emblematic of the separate worlds the majority of blacks and whites inhabit in America, but how far apart, how polarized, these worlds remain close to half a century after the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.
What followed the verdicts in both trials were riots in the streets. To be sure, in the case of O.J. Simpson it was a riot of jubilation by black Americans everywhere, and despondency by white Americans at the spectacle of a man who they were convinced was guilty of murder but was now enabled by black jurors to walk free. In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, however, the response, in the form of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, was violent, deadly and tragic all around — widespread looting, assault, arson and murder, with 53 people killed, thousands injured, and property damage estimated at roughly one billion dollars.
Now comes, or will soon come, the Zimmerman trial, with its potential for igniting, to borrow a term from the black novelist and essayist James Baldwin, “the fire next time.”
America obviously is not a country comprising just black and white communities, but also folks who are brown, Semitic, Hispanic, Oriental and others. But among black and white Americans there remains a divide anchored in their respective histories. Damaging images and assumptions they form of the “other” insinuate themselves into the attitudes of the most progressive, the most liberal, the most unbiased amongst them.
What do African Americans make of the privileges enjoyed by white Americans, and how do they relate to the stereotyping — often unconscious and invisible in this politically correct age — that is thrust upon them by whites? What do these whites know anyhow about how even the most assimilated, successful and influential blacks in society yearn for the comfort of all-black separateness? And yes, who bears the burden of history, of slave ships bringing unfortunate souls from another continent to pick cotton, to avert their eyes at the sight of a white woman, at peril of being lynched?
Do you still shoot a black teenager today, after emancipation was proclaimed 149 years ago, because “he’s wearing a hoodie and he looks suspicious,” and still not expect to trigger the ire of 30 million African Americans?
Between America as a moral vision, a nation of nations, as it were, that continues to welcome to its shores “your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” and America the country of strangers living in their own little islands of privacy, there remains a chasm — a shadowy world of racial contradictions.
A court of law will in time adjudicate the case of Zimmerman. It cannot, however, adjudicate how a people’s inner history will propel them to respond to its judgment.