The Jackson Verdict and the Black-White Divide

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The commentator talks about why he thinks the Michael Jackson trial, like other cases involving famous black people in recent years, has evoked different reactions from blacks and whites.


The Jackson trial is over, but commentator Clarence Page still has something to say about it.


I confess, I didn't follow the Michael Jackson trial that closely. Somehow I found more important things to do. Trust me, it wasn't hard. Nevertheless, as I waited with a few million New Yorkers near Times Square on Monday for the Jackson verdict to come in a whole continent away, I was surprised by a question quite a few black folks asked me: Did I think the jury, all white and Latino, would come out against Jackson because he's a black man? As an African-American, I find it interesting that so many other black folks I know still view Michael Jackson as black, while most white folks I know seem to think Jackson's trying very hard not to be black.

With that in mind, I know I'm going to offend some people for just bringing up the race issue in Jackson's case. While I'm hardly the first, and I won't be the last, open your eyes, America. Remember how shocked America was when the Simpson verdict came in? TV showed footage over and over again of whites crying while blacks cheered. Well, take it from me, that cheering was not because black folks loved O.J. It was because his high-profile trial reminded so many people of their own relations with the criminal justice system, relations that have been poor for a long time for most black Americans.

Nine years ago, the Harris poll was the first to report before the trial of O.J. that large majorities of whites thought he was guilty while most blacks believed he was innocent. A more recent Harris poll found that black and white perceptions are still polarized, although thankfully not as much about Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and even the domestic goddess Martha Stewart, whom you may have noticed is white.

I would submit that it is not just black perceptions on race that make the difference. It's black perceptions of prosecutors. There's an old saying that a conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged. The author, Tom Wolfe, came up with a good corollary: a liberal is just a conservative who's been arrested.

With a fourth of young black males currently involved in the criminal justice system, according to one major research study, the system touches just about every black American family in a more negative way than it touches most white families. Nevertheless, it's important to note you did not see a lot of black folks dancing in the streets after Michael Jackson's not-guilty verdict. Regardless of color, the strangeness of Jackson's sleeping habits struck too many of us as too weird for comfort, even by the weird standards of showbiz superstars.

If I may take liberties with Jackson's lyrics, it don't matter if you're black or white. We hope he's looking at the man in the mirror. We're asking him to change his ways.

CHIDEYA: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to this show, listen to, or if you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330. That's (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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