I had never seen that look before, at least not from an adult. It was a combination of bewilderment, astonishment, instability, and fear, and as she spoke to me I could tell that the confluence of emotions she was experiencing was not only unfamiliar, but totally unexpected. It was the morning of October 3, 1995, a few minutes after 10:00am. Like an estimated 150 million other people, our lives had just paused momentarily as the verdict of the century was announced. Now, in the aftermath, we could hear the unabashed jubilation just down the hall, where probably every Black employee except me was high-fiving and dapping and generally exalting in the euphoria of O.J. being found not guilty. Now don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t displeased with the verdict, but even at that moment I was wondering what would happen next. After watching the news break with everyone else, I had simply walked away back towards my office, which by and large was the same thing most White employees had done.
She was the Executive Officer (XO) of the command (this was during my Navy career)– the second in command– and from what I’d heard and seen of her, had most likely lived a life devoid of any significant difficulty. In fact, I really didn’t care for her (and as it turned out later, neither she for me) because her comments and decisions consistently showed little understanding of the real world. One of our more heated discussions had centered around granting a waiver for a young Black man who was trying to enlist. He was married with three children, and this XO was refusing to sign off on the waiver because “I don’t think it will be fair to his family, because junior enlisted just don’t make enough money.” Amazingly, at least to me, she couldn’t understand that the young man was currently unemployed and living in the projects of Los Angeles. He was desperately trying to take advantage of the best opportunity in his life, and she was denying it because, quite frankly, she was measuring his immediate future against her own standard of living.
Anyway, as I walked by her office, she glanced up. She’d had her head in her hands, face down. She looked at me and said, slowly, “How could they find him not guilty?” I’m not sure if the question was rhetorical, or whether she really wanted me to help her understand, but I merely shrugged and walked away. I realized that her world, her comfort zone, her understanding of how things have to be– all of this had been shattered when the unimaginable happened. I would have to imagine that she was not alone; all over these supposedly United States, White people were grappling with the unthinkable. Famous Black man, two dead White people, and the courts– the one institution that White society had counted on for decades– had just failed them, undermining the most fundamental of societal rules: White lives must always be protected and avenged.
As I listen and read the astounding rhetoric flowing in this year’s presidential campaign, and often stand flabbergasted at the venom cast towards Barack Obama, I wonder what the morning of November 5, 2008 will reveal. Over and over again I’ve heard White people say “I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but there’s no way I’m voting for him.” Then, realizing what such talk could potentially reveal, they hastily add “He just doesn’t have enough experience,” or “I just can’t buy into his economic plans,” or something equally camouflaging. But if, and that’s an “if” of historic proportions, Obama wins, will we see that look again, now on the faces of millions of Americans who cannot imagine a White House that isn’t, well, White? Nearly 13 years later, the O.J. verdict is enough to send many White people into horrific tirades, railing against the courts, the media, and even the late Johnny Cochrane. Some pundits tried to spin it as though much of America’s racial polarization was being exposed, and the resulting dialogue must be beneficial. The realization, though, has been just as much, if not more, animosity and public rushes to judgment. Michael Vick, though hardly a saint, deserved prison no more than someone ticketed for traveling five miles over the speed limit, but the comparisons to O.J. flew quickly. “We can’t let another one get away” was the not so subtle message, and his sentencing, for some, was a signal that order had not been completely usurped.
For the next couple of weeks we will enjoy the conventions, be inspired or incensed (depending on your political leanings) by the speeches, and might even be entertained, in a deviant sort of way, if Hillary Clinton tries to pull some “No she didn’t” shenanigans in Denver. Then, for a few short weeks, the real mudslinging will begin, with actual issues being tossed on the back burner. Accusations will fly, counteraccusations will immediately follow. For millions of us, Black, White, and otherwise, our personal boogeymanometers will be in overload, as either Obama or McCain will be portrayed as, in short, our worst possible nightmare.
But, the day will come. Many of us will go to the polls for the first time, believing for a change that our votes do matter, that we are a viable part of the political process, and that we are becoming a part of history. And then, when the counting is done, and the 21st century’s first really compelling question has finally been answered, how will America respond?
I pray that it won’t simply be with that look.