We were in the middle of our bi-weekly brown bag staff lunch when one of our staff members burst into the room with the news that O.J. had just been acquitted. Our black staff erupted in spontaneous applause and joyful cheers. Our white staff sat in stunned silence. The reaction was so strikingly opposite that I wondered if we had all heard the same announcement. Differing opinions on many issues are commonplace among our staff. But this vivid contrast in emotional reaction that sliced us cleanly into two racial groups took me completely off guard. I have always had a sense of pride in unity that our very diverse ministry team has forged. Relationships among people who are educationally, economically, theologically as well as racially different do not develop without conflict, however. Our misconceptions and insensitivities have often precipitated candid and sometimes heated confrontations. Over time this commitment to relating honestly has allowed a significant level of trust and vulnerability to develop among us. I had no inkling that we were so deeply divided on the issues forced to the surface by the O.J. trial.
I shared this unsettling realization with my Bible study group that evening. This, too, is a racially mixed group but because we are all professional folk with many similar theological and political beliefs I expected a little more unanimity about O.J.'s obvious guilt (obvious to me, at least). But such was not the case. It quickly became clear that the blacks in our group viewed the world through an entirely different lens from the whites. Our experiences with law enforcement and the justice system were vastly different. Every black person in the group, I was astonished to learn, had at least once in their lives suffered mistreatment (either personally or a family member) at the hands of the law. Each one had learned at an early age that policemen, even the occasional good ones, are not to be trusted very far. Our white members had an entirely different view. We were taught from childhood that "the policeman is our friend." We are shocked and disappointed when an occasional "bad cop" is discovered among the ranks of these trusted peace keepers. Little wonder that our group members, as similar as we are in many important respects, had arrived at widely divergent conclusions about what constituted "reasonable doubt."
The following morning when I arrived at the office my first phone call was from Albert Love, a black minister friend. After brief social exchanges, he went directly to the matter that prompted his call. It was the O.J. verdict. Knowing that most African-Americans could understand the justice in the jury's decision while many whites would see it as a miscarriage of justice, Albert wanted to prevent this difference of perspective from further fragmenting the community of faith. He sensitively affirmed any feelings that I might be experiencing that were different from his own. He guided our conversation past the divisive issues of the case and focused on the legitimacy of differing points of view that grow out of our unique histories. The bottom line was that he wanted me to know that he cared about me. He wanted to make every effort to use this event for the deepening of our understanding for each other rather than the distancing of our relationship.
I hung up the phone and sat for several moments reflecting upon what had just happened. I was deeply touched by Albert's concern for my feelings. How reconciling his sensitivity! I was aware that by this thoughtful act my need to generalize blame had been diminished. My mind returned to another divisive verdict two years earlier when a white jury acquitted the police the whole world had seen beating Rodney King. Atlanta was gripped with racial tensions then, too. But I did not do then what Albert had just done. Why, when I knew that my black friends were stinging from what they could only see as blatant racism, why did I not do for them as Albert had just done for me? Why had I simply done nothing?
The O.J. trial, more than any event since the civil rights movement, has lanced the festering boil of racial misunderstanding and has spilled out its ugliness before us all. The "racial card" that was turned over is much bigger than a defense tactic. The evidence that surfaced in this trial was not limited to the defendant's guilt or innocence. Clear evidence was presented that our lack of understanding still divides us deeply as a people. And this matter cannot be settled by judges and juries or in the court of public opinion. The infection has been exposed, to be sure. But sunlight has also streamed in. Our healing is now in our own hands. It will come as we learn to listen with our hearts to the hurts of others and then pick up the phone and follow Albert Love's lead.