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Courtroom incivility // Another kind of race card

Race defined the O.J. Simpson trial, and it continues to hold the nation under its spell. Unfortunately, though, we are losing an opportunity to understand more fully the effects of race because we are focusing on it solely as a black-white wedge.

Additionally, although most of us were unaware, the trial gave us a rare glimpse into how blacks use race to define relationships among themselves.

Everyone is familiar with some aspects of interracial relations but not with intraracial relations, how black people associate with one another. Either because of ignorance or fear or disinterest, whites do not explore the subject. And African-Americans do not talk about it because we refuse to confront self-imposed problems.

The truth is that, along with using race as a blunt instrument against whites, blacks use it to craft relations with one another. During the trial, intraracial conflict surfaced in November when Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti announced that Christopher A. Darden, a 15-year veteran of the DA's office, would join the all-white prosecution team. Born in a working-class family, Darden, 39, was reared in a black neighborhood and attended black schools.

Immediately, the defense, led by the brilliant Johnnie Cochran, issued a statement effectively introducing the intrarace card: "(Darden's appointment) is just a show that if a black prosecutor sees O. J. guilty, he is being judged by the evidence at hand and not for some deep-seated bias. What we see here is the use of race to convince a jury that is majority black."

In the same light, a Cochran confidant told the Los Angeles Times: "Johnnie feels that Garcetti is using Chris, and he warned Chris that this was going to hurt him in the community, and it has."

Indeed, Darden and his family have become targets of insults and have been ostracized in many parts of black Los Angeles. He is maligned as an "Uncle Tom," a "traitor," a "lackey."

The prevailing ethos is that no real black person works in a field that oppresses other blacks. Jobs in law enforcement and, of course, the judiciary top the list. As a group, prosecutors are more reviled than judges. Unlike defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers, who often are seen as authentic blacks or as heroes, prosecutors are the enemy. Cochran, for example, is seen as a true black man. Not Darden.

Inside the courtroom, the first sign that Cochran would play the "blacker than thou" card came when Darden questioned defense witness Robert Heidstra, a neighbor of Nicole Brown Simpson, who said that he had heard two voices, one of which had sounded black, about the time of the murders.

Cochran exploded. "I resent that statement. You can't tell from somebody's voice whether they sound black. . . . That's a racist statement," he said, self-righteously planting the impression that he is more sensitive to racism than is Darden.

A similar confrontation occurred when Darden, in his role as prosecutor, argued against letting the defense play tapes in which Mark Fuhrman used the word "nigger." Aware of the jury's racial makeup, Darden said of the epithet: "It'll issue a test and the test will be: Whose side are you on, the side of the white prosecutors and the white policemen. . . . Either you're with the man or you're with the brothers."

Cochran claimed that Darden had demeaned his own race by suggesting that black jurors could not hear the ugly word and still render fair verdicts.

Reacting to trouble he and his family were experiencing as a result of Cochran's comments in the community, Darden turned to his Nemesis, saying, "That's what has created a lot of problems for my family and myself, statements that you make about me and race."

Almost everything about Darden's predicament after he joined the prosecution team contradicts the reality of his life. He never had been a stranger to his race. For instance, he had spent much of his career, often teamed with Cochran, prosecuting Los Angeles cops accused of brutalizing blacks.

To the charge that Garcetti manipulated him, Darden told the New York Times: "People who know me know that I won't allow myself or my skills to be used that way. If there's any strong point I bring to this case, it's that I don't back down and I won't be intimidated, no matter how much money the lawyers on the other side have. I am an aggressive personality. That's why I'm here."

And to the charge of not being black enough, he said: "Before people condemn you, they ought to try to get to know you and know what you've accomplished. I have never forgotten my roots. I'm black and have never had an opportunity to forget it and wouldn't want that opportunity. It's the strongest asset I have, the only thing I have to fall back on, what has made me the man I am today."

Intrablack superiority is especially self-destructive because it makes people think illogically. Most blacks complain, for example, about the lack of blacks in the judiciary and in law enforcement. And they are right to complain. But too often, when blacks rise to these positions of responsibility, they are condemned.

Cochran is celebrated for having worked the system to free his celebrity client. That was his job, complete with the demagoguery and logical fallacies.

But what about Darden? As a modestly paid public servant driven by principle, did he do his job? Did he perform professionally, honorably? Did he show courage when knowingly accepting a job that would make him persona non grata among his people?

During closing arguments, Darden said: "There are no heroes in this courtroom today." He may have been right. But if no heroes were present that day, Darden came mighty close to being one. If nothing else, he is a black man who is black on his own terms.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.