MAXWELL:  Race feeds illogic in attitudes toward Tyson and O. J.

4/2/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Few things underscore human behavior more accurately than unintended irony. New York Times sports writer Ira Berkow captured, with dead-pan wit, a moment of such irony on March 25, as he described the scene outside the Indiana prison where former boxing champion Mike Tyson had been freed after having served three years of a six-year sentence:

“As the cars pulled away from (the) prison in the growing light of day, people shouted well-wishes after Tyson. Someone, perhaps lost, shouted, “Free the Juice!’ ”

The “Juice,” of course, is O(renthal) J(ames) Simpson. But why would someone, seemingly “lost,” hoist a sign alluding to O. J. at Tyson’s release from prison? Truth is, this someone was not “lost” at all. He knew where he was, and his message clearly was about the subtleties and paradoxes of race in America. He was saying that O. J., like Tyson, is the victim of a racist judicial system and should be freed also. Never mind that the “Juice” is on trial for murder.

If you believe that only blacks want O. J. to be freed, you are wrong. Millions of whites _ many of them women who thoroughly despise Tyson _ are secretly shouting: “Free the Juice!” Why these apparently contradictory feelings? After all, Tyson, convicted of raping a black woman, has legally paid for his crime. O. J., on the other hand, is accused of slashing to death his estranged wife and her friend, both white.

O. J., moreover, is guilty of what many whites consider the worst crime a black man can commit: miscegenation.

Logically, white people should be more contemptuous of the “Juice.” But they are not. Why? The answers are deeply embedded in the nation’s legacy of race, in society’s tortured relationship with the black male, in the primal terror that the specter of a certain kind of black male _ a Mike Tyson, not an O. J. Simpson _ inspires in white people.

Tyson, a ninth-grade dropout, represents white America’s conscious and subconscious vision of the black male. His childhood, for example, is a seamless rap sheet that reinforces white America’s stereotypes. The product of a broken home in Brooklyn, he was a free-ranging thug who mugged old ladies. He moved on to forcing himself on girls. When not on the mean streets raising hell, he was in reform school rasing hell. As an adult, after becoming a millionaire, he drank and beat his wife, actress Robin Givens, as if she were a heavyweight contender.

He was convicted of raping a Miss Black America contestant and refused to apologize for the crime even when the judge gave him the opportunity to do so during an early release hearing.

Then, there are Iron Mike’s other traits, all of which either offend or scare whites, perpetuating the image of the menacing black male. As a boxer, he is a self-defined metaphor, a myth. He is a caricature of himself: Iron Mike is the one who called himself “the baddest man on the planet.”

He stalks his prey, glaring into their eyes, leaning into them, relentlessly landing big, vicious blows. He does more than win; he annihilates. He mocks his opponents as they lie on the mat or dangle from the ropes. Even in victory, he rarely smiles, but when he does, his smile is a twisted unveiling of gold teeth. His facial features are Negroid, the rest of him heavily muscled wild energy. Tyson is the quintessential dark force of pugilism _ its Darth Vader. His ring attire is the man: black shorts and black shoes; no socks and no robe. Raw manhood clad for a bloodletting.

Iron Mike, the uncontrollable “brute,” the “exotic primitive,” inspires terror. He is what British author Joseph Conrad, whose work often depicts black-white relations in central Africa, calls “unmitigated savagery . . . whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and wise alike.”

Tyson’s being threatens the learned niceties and values essential to normal human conduct, transforming terror into revulsion and contempt so strong that many whites believe that the man _ even though he has paid his debt to society _ has no right to resume his lucrative career. Whites argue that his face should not adorn T-shirts, that fans should know better than to cheer for this animal and that HBO should reject him.

Amazingly, on the flip side of rationality, millions of whites are heartsick that O. J. could spend the rest of his life in prison. His good looks, wealth and football celebrity notwithstanding, the “Juice” inspires sympathy. Unlike Iron Mike, he does not drive whites to fear and loathing. His early years of gang fighting, unlike those of Tyson, do not count against him, for he has lived his adult years mostly in the company of white people, doing white things, virtually being white.

Until his arrest for murder, O. J. was mainstream America. He gave average whites nothing to dislike or to fear. His features are Anglo, he smiles and he cavorts with the rich, the powerful, the famous and the beautiful. O. J. was and still is an honorary white man, despite his attorneys’ attempts to use the race card and despite the howls of racism by many African-Americans. Indeed, if racism is a force in O. J.’s trial, it is working to his advantage.

Some real ironies surround this diabolical duo. Tyson, for instance, is perhaps more naturally articulate and intelligent than O. J. And Tyson was convicted of a less-heinous crime than that for which O. J. stands accused. But few whites appreciate these big differences between the two because they cannot get past the stereotypes of Iron Mike’s fearsome black maleness.

If this scenario seems to be illogical, it is. In America, most matters of race involving black males are illogical. Or, as Tyson is fond of saying when he is perplexed: “Ludicrous.”

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