America: Black Americans Cheered Michael Jackson's Acquittal Because to Them He Represents an Underclass Oppressed for Centuries by Police, Courts and Juries

By Stephen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), June 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

America: Black Americans Cheered Michael Jackson's Acquittal Because to Them He Represents an Underclass Oppressed for Centuries by Police, Courts and Juries


Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


I have avoided Santa Maria as I would the plague for the past three months, refusing to have any part in the Michael Jackson circus that repackaged human suffering into entertainment. Instead I was putting the dustbins outside my house in Washington at about 5.30pm on Monday when--unusually--a group of eight or so black schoolchildren went past me, whooping and shouting like Arsenal supporters parading through Highbury after a victory.

A few minutes later a member of my household reported that spirits were high among adults in a black area of Washington where he had been working. They must have heard of the Jackson acquittal minutes earlier. The two experiences revealed to me how differently the trial was perceived by whites and blacks, and how the United States is still split by racial divisions to a degree that few comprehend.

Even an international entertainer who has deliberately turned himself into someone of indeterminate race remains, as a result, a divisive figure in white and black America. To blacks he remains symbolic of an underclass that has been oppressed by police, courts and juries throughout American history--something that continues today. If you think I am exaggerating, let me draw your attention to three vastly less-publicised cases in American courts and a vote in the Senate that happened on the same day that the Jackson verdict was announced.

First, the Supreme Court in Washington ruled by a 6-3 majority that "the very integrity of the courts is jeopardised" by the process of illegally excluding blacks from juries. This happened in the trial of Thomas Miller-El, a black man sentenced to death in Texas for the murder of a white Holiday Inn clerk; the majority opinion said it "blinks reality" that prosecutors in his trial struck out ten of 11 potential black jurors for any reason other than race. Because these prosecutors deliberately excluded blacks, there was only one black juror in the trial. Miller-El escaped death. Still, since 2002 Texas--with 7.6 per cent of the nation's population--has carried out 42 per cent of its executions, a disproportionate number of them black. Across the US, the population of death row is 41.8 per cent black and 45.6 white, even though blacks make up roughly 12 per cent of the population. That same day, the Supreme Court made a related ruling about another improperly conducted murder trial of a black defendant, this time in California. A black man named Jay Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury of murdering his white girlfriend's daughter; three blacks had been excluded from the jury by prosecutors, and the Supreme Court ruled that state law made it too difficult for defendants to show that this type of practice was because of racial discrimination. …

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