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The New Justice

By Kenneth A. Katz

POTOMAC, MD LIKE SIMI VALLEY--the Los Angeles suburb where a jury acquitted the four police officers accused in the Rodney King beating--Potomac is a suburban paradise.

My hometown has big houses and huge malls, fine schools and beautiful parks. And it's only a half-hour drive to Washington, D.C.

That's close enough for us Montgomery County residents to take advantage of the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery and other venues for high-brow cultural events, yet far enough away to be insulated from some of D.C.'s less appealing features, like the highest murder rate in the nation.

And insulated we are, in a county that's far whiter and far richer than the city it borders. Montgomery County's population is roughly 76 percent white, 12 percent Black, eight percent Asian and seven percent Hispanic. D.C.'s is about 29 percent white, 65 percent Black, two percent Asian and five percent Hispanic.

Our median household income is close to $55,000; theirs is $31,000. Unemployment runs at 3.7 percent here and 8.4 percent there.

The demographic disparity between my hometown and D.C. is similar to--and in some respects greater than--that between Simi Valley and L.A. In Ventura County, where Simi Valley is located, the population is 66 percent white, two percent Black, five percent Asian and 26 percent Hispanic. L.A. is 44 percent white, 11 percent Black, 11 percent Asian and 34 percent Hispanic. (Reporting discrepancies account for the 100-plus percentages.)

Ventura's median household income is about $38,000; L.A.'s is approximately $30,000. The county's unemployment rate is eight percent. The city's is 8.6 percent.

And Simi Valley residents--like their suburban soulmates in Potomac--are proud to say their community is not tainted by the problems of the city, like gang violence and homelessness.

For a suburbanite like me, all these similarities beg the question: What if the whole Rodney King affair had occurred in the D.C. area rather than in L.A.? What if white D.C. cops had been videotaped beating a Black motorist? What if the trial had been moved from D.C. to Potomac, as it was from L.A. to Simi Valley?

And what if I had been picked as one of the 10 whites to serve on the jury, along with an Asian and a Hispanic resident of Montgomery County?

Given my white skin, my suburban background and my community's proximity to an urban cesspool, it may seem obvious--at least to some people--what kind of verdict I'd have voted for. Then maybe Southeast D.C., not South-Central L.A., would have gone up in flames last month. And maybe Potomac, not Simi Valley, would become a place associated with the nascent racism of the lily white 'burbs.

OR MAYBE NOT. I cannot imagine that I would have voted to acquit the officers who beat Rodney King to a pulp. Like everyone else, I saw the famous videotape played on the news countless times. And I expected the jury to convict--even if it was an all non-Black jury drawn from an adjoining county that's a world apart from downtown L.A. I was shocked by the acquittal.

These sentiments were shared by all of my white, middle-class suburban friends at Harvard from back home in Potomac. And, for that matter, they were shared by all of my non-white, non-middle-class friends, too.

Granted, none of us were in that courtroom and in that jury. We saw the videotape--but not a frame-by-frame dissection of it. And we missed all the cross-examinations and the lawyers' arguments.

So, I think, did most of the news media and the public. In the post-mortem of the trial that continues today, there has been little talk of anything but the fact that it was tried in Ventura County, not L.A. County, and decided by a jury that lacked even one Black member.

The bottom line, of course, is that the "errant" verdict is blamed explicitly on the skewed racial makeup of the jury and implicitly on the skin-mediated sense of justice supposedly held by the non-Black jurors.

This sort of thinking, which defines individuals solely in terms of all-encompassing racial and ethnic identities, is not new to America or its court system. No doubt it can also be historically validated, especially in the South, where white juries regularly convicted Blacks in bogus trials. The death penalty has also been shown to discriminate against Blacks.

More recently, in the wake of the L.A. riots, there's the case of a Hispanic police officer in Miami accused of killing two Black motorists.

The trial can't be held in Miami, as potential jurors there have expressed concern that an acquittal will incite rioting in their own communities, so the judge is seeking an alternate venue that has the appropriate ethnic and racial makeup.

And bills have been introduced in the California and New Jersey legislatures that require judges who change the venue of a trial to choose a community similar demographically to the original location.

The same arguments are heard in favor of diverse faculties and even newsrooms on campuses across the nation, including Harvard.

But is the underlying premise true? Can--and will--an individual of a certain racial or ethnic background judge fairly in a case that pits a member of his tribe against a member of another?

Few people will dispute that individuals' racial or ethnic background informs their world-views, especially in a society as race-conscious as ours. But so do a lot of other factors--like gender, class, sexual orientation and religion. That's the only way to explain why the only thing shared by people like Shelby Steele and Leonard Jeffries is the superficial color of their skin.

I DON'T KNOW what the schools in Simi Valley teach, but when I was growing up here in Potomac they taught us about equal rights and equal opportunity for all Americans. Right now, those words are a lot more meaningful for kids on this side of the Montgomery County-D.C. border than on the other.

But after the L.A. riots, the emphasis should be not on changing America's goals--as some racial and ethnic Balkanists would advocate--but on fulfilling them for all Americans. That's no lily-white suburban dream--just an American one.

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