A Common Interest in Justice

THE divergent reactions of many black Americans and white Americans to the O.J. Simpson verdict point to, more than anything else, Americans' divergent experiences with their justice system.

Even economically comfortable, politically moderate African-Americans are much more likely than their white peers to have been treated rudely by the police.

Witness the strong reaction, last week, of columnist Clarence Paige to the suggestion by a fellow McNeil-Lehrer commentator that resentment against racist law enforcement was concentrated in the black underclass. Paige, himself black, pointed out that even higher-income blacks of his acquaintance had encountered police mistreatment. (A recent Wall Street Journal editorial, chronicling the experience of one of the Journal's executives with New York City transit police, underscores the point.)

Examinations of black incarceration patterns statistically bolster the view that blacks' experience of law enforcement is a world apart from whites'. A new study from the Washington-based Sentencing Project indicates that nearly 1 in 3 African-American men, ages 20 to 29, is under criminal-justice supervision (jail, probation, or parole) on a given day.

The question, loudly reiterated in discussion after the O. J. trial, is what can be done about this?

The authors of the incarceration study advocate such steps as a greater emphasis on treating, rather than simply locking up, drug users and getting rid of inflexible sentencing laws. That's a reasonable, but limited response.

What about reorienting national policy toward the deep social, economic, and educational crises of the inner cities? That's also reasonable, but clearly at odds with current political trends.

The fundamental problem lies deeper than policy, in a murky mix of experience and perception: Blacks' perceptions of a justice system weighted against them, and whites' perceptions of blacks as violent or crime-prone. Such perceptions may not have determined the Simpson outcome, but they were thoroughly churned by the trial's emotions.

The common line, now, is that the racial divide in America is an unbridgeable chasm. That's false. The thrust of recent American history is toward reconciliation and expanded opportunity. Divergent experiences and perceptions can't nullify Americans' united interest in seeing their country progress. And more-effective justice, free of racial taint, is one crucial gauge of that progress.

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