The United States of America has been home to an increasingly multitude of cultures since the first immigrants came to its shores during the 1600's. The pursuit of the "American Dream" concept has furthermore made the country attractive for immigrants from many diverse countries. The result is that many different languages are spoken within the country's borders. This often makes communication and hence understanding between these cultures difficult. Phenomena such as racism and hate crimes are often blamed upon this lack of understanding. It is true that racism often arises in criminal and other cases heard in American courts. Two very prominent such trials include those of O.J. Simpson and Rodney King. The events surrounding both these trials include clearly racial overtones. More recently, the Patriot Act and its amendments have been widely criticized not only for its infringement on the rights of American citizens in general, but also for its tendency to specifically target persons of certain nationalities and reasons as possible terrorists. This is a problem that may also be ascribed to a lack of interracial understanding and communication. In order to remedy such problems of intercultural communication, many promote the institution of English as the official language of the United States. The question is, however, how effective such an action will be. Will this not even further destroy the already fragile relations between the various cultures in the country by attempting to deny the variety of cultures that do exist?
Racial attitudes in the United States, as mentioned above, have been blamed upon the language issue. The proponents of making only English the official language of the United States propose that, once language is uniform, all cultural and racial divides will melt away into an interlingual and perfect understanding. In order examine the viability of this view, it is useful to investigate more closely issues such as the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial and the bases and effects of the U.S. Patriot Act more closely. It is interesting that, when examining these issues from all possible viewpoints, preconceived ideas regarding racism apparently cloud the whole truth from the minds of observers. It therefore appears that, to a large extent, racial attitudes in the United States are governed by perception, preconception and misunderstanding.
When occurrences such as the Rodney King beating are examined, racism often appears at the forefront of events.
This is demonstrated by various authors on the Rodney King event. Kristal Brent Zook (2002), for example, describes the events from the perspective of King's assumed innocence. The author describes the life history of the African-American in terms that portrays him as the victim of circumstances beyond his control. An alcoholic father and educators who misunderstood his learning problems are for example blamed for the precedent set for the rest of King's life. It is against his background that Zook describes the circumstances of the beating itself. King is therefore portrayed as the victim of a blatantly racial attack. This is also the perspective taken by the majority of the public at the time. Hence the riots resulting from the initial acquittal of the four perpetrators. In this way, King is described as a victim of circumstances and racial hatred.
Lou Cannon (1999), on the other hand, demonstrates that there is more than one side to the story. The video tape recording of the beating, for example, does not show King's reluctance to comply with the officers' repeated attempts to take him into custody without violence. Nor does it show King's blood alcohol level, which was well above the legal limit. The police were therefore within their rights to remove him from the vehicle and from the road for the sake of his own safety, along with that of his fellow road users. Cannon describes the events from the viewpoint of the police officers and their suffering as a result of the trials. Although investigations show that they were within their rights to use force against King for not complying with their attempts to detain him. King's innate tendency towards unlawful behavior is demonstrated by his criminal record up to and since the event of the beating. Even Zook admits that King's arrest record since the event of the beating is far from pristine; he has been detained on several occasions for both drunken driving and spousal abuse. In contrast, the policemen involved in the beating have been demonized for life and will never be able do law enforcement work again. The way in which Cannon therefore describes the issue demonstrates the relative innocence of the policemen as opposed to King's transgression. Zook's and Cannon's differing viewpoints, along with the perception of the public at the time, make it clear that there is not only interracial misunderstanding, but also a public tendency to make assumptions based upon the racist paradigm without thorough prior investigation. The very fact that the issue can be seen from such widely differing perspectives proves the extent to which this tendency manifests itself in the United States and its culture.
The same can be seen in the O.J. Simpson trial, where racism and racial issues played a large part in how the trial was conducted and perceived. The most obvious point where race plays a role is Simpson's race as African-American as opposed to that of the victims, who were white. There are however also more subtle political and racial issues influencing the trial. Douglas Linder (2000), for example, highlights the location of the trial. According to the author, normal procedure would have been to file the case in the district where the crime occurred - Santa Monica. However, in Simpson's situation, the case was filed in the downtown district. According to Linder, the prosecution's explanation for this does not appear very plausible - to reduce the prosecuters' commuting time and to accommodate the media. Instead, the author cites political reasons for the decision: A jury from the Santa Monica district would likely be predominantly white. If Simpson were to be convicted by such a jury, it was foreseen that racial protests might result. The true decision for the location of the case filing was therefore made out of fear for racial tensions and violence. This is indicative of the prosecutors' preconceived belief that they had a strong enough case against Simpson to ensure a conviction, regardless of the racial composition of the jury. The location of the trial is then the fundamental element playing a role in the subsequent events of the trial. Another racial preconception related to the choice of trial location is that racial riots may be connected with a conviction of a black man by a predominantly white jury, and that the black community would assume Simpson's innocence. Furthermore, it is assumed that the black community may resort to violence if Simpson were convicted. Furthermore, the historical events, including that of Rodney King, also indicate the behavior of certain communities that tends to spark the often not unrealistic racial preconceptions mentioned above.
Racial riots in the event of a conviction may therefore have been a viable expectation. The issue under discussion is not whether such preconceptions and events are valid or right, but the fact that they exist within the community and how to move beyond them.
Another interesting element of jury selection and the concomitant race issue is the avoidance of what Linder refers to as a "death-qualified" jury. According to the author, studies show that such a jury, from which jurors opposed to capital punishment are excluded, would be more likely to convict. Interestingly, jurors who are normally opposed to capital punishment are generally black and female. Prosecutors were also advised to exclude black, female jurors; advice that they ignored.
Even before the trial therefore began, several racial issues came to the forefront of the O.J. Simpson trial. Even more importantly, these issues were never openly or knowingly addressed. This could be seen as a desire to steer away from the already volatile racial overtones connected to the trial. More subtly, it could also be that, in the effort to appear as racially impartial as possible, the prosecution and other officials involved with the trial completely ignored the racial biases attached to it. In other words, the race issue is so inherent in the American community, that it has become almost invisible, as it were. Perhaps this invisibility is one of the reasons for targeting language uniformity as a potential unifying factor in the United States, rather than targeting the true root of the race problem.
Perhaps one would do better to examine the issues that cause the divide before searching for ways to repair it. The U.S. Patriot Act certainly serves only to deepen the divide (American Civil Liberties Union, 2003). This Act is perhaps the most consistently controversial piece of legislation in the history of the United States. As a rather hysterical government response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the Patriot Act in general involves a severe infringement upon…