How did the Rodney King case illuminate the differences between how black and white Americans saw the police and the justice system?
The Rodney King case was sort of a watershed moment in racial relations in the United States and had emotional repercussions two years later when former football player O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman.
Rodney King became well-known when he was pulled over following a high-speed car chase in Los Angeles and subsequently beaten by police officers, an incident caught on video by a bystander. The four police officers involved were tried for assault with a deadly weapon; three were acquitted, and the fourth was similarly released as a result of a hung jury. Immediately following the acquittal of the police officers, African Americans rioted across Los Angeles, with enormous destruction to property and injuries among a number of citizens.
The Rodney King case illuminated the extent of the gulf between African Americans and whites with respect to law enforcement. Prior to the trial of the police officers and the riot, a special task force had been convened to study the King case. The task force, the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (also known as the Christopher Commission) looked at the disparities between blacks and whites with respect to relations with police and expectations of law enforcement in general. The commission’s findings, unsurprisingly, were bleak. Quoting one African American pastor describing how his parishioners viewed police,
“. . . they are caught in a dilemma because they are suffering at the hands of police. On one hand, they don’t want to speak up because they don’t want to undermine the ability of the police to deal with the negative elements. But I have been told of many incidents where my parishioners have been the victims of disrespect or the victims of excessive force by the police.”
As noted, the commission’s report was issued prior to the outbreak of riots across Los Angeles following the acquittals of the police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King. Those riots provided considerably more evidence of the gulf between ethnicities where police relations are concerned. It was the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial, however, that fully illuminated the gulf. Many African Americans supported Simpson, including those who believed him guilty of murder, because they were tired of being victimized by the police and viewed Simpson’s acquittal as a victory for blacks.
In contrast to African Americans, perceptions among whites were split largely along ideological lines, with liberals more prone to sympathize with the plight of African Americans and conservatives more supportive of the police. The Rodney King case, however, was built upon the video of his beating at the hands of the police, and most whites, irrespective of political orientation, saw excessive force being used to subdue King. Differences between blacks and whites on the King trial were vastly different than with the later Simpson trial. The black-white gulf was far more pronounced after Simpson's acquittal.
In this instance (as with the OJ Simpson case) blacks and whites tended to see things very differently. These differences showed that African Americans generally tend not to trust the police and to see them as oppressors. By contrast, white Americans see the police (at least when the police are dealing with African Americans) as fair and unbiased defenders of the good people of society.
To blacks, King's case was another, high-profile, example of how the police brutalize African Americans unfairly. At that time, there were many accounts in the media of African Americans being pulled over simply for "driving while black." That sort of thing caused a great deal of resentment among African Americans and the King case gave them even more reason for anger. When the officers were acquitted, it seemed like proof that the justice system was rigged against African Americans.
Whites, by contrast, (and of course this is an overgeneralization) saw the officers as men who were just doing their jobs. They blamed King for being drunk, for fleeing the police, and for resisting arrest. They saw what happened to him as fair and appropriate. This showed their greater faith in police and in the justice system.
The Rodney King case definitely highlighted significant differences between how black and white Americans view the police and the criminal justice system. In some ways, these views haven’t changed with recent high-profile cases involving the African American community and the police.
Many African Americans have felt for a long time that they have been mistreated and dealt with unfairly by the police. The video of the police beating Rodney King confirmed this belief. More African Americans, especially males, end up in prison than white Americans do. African Americans often feel the police target them. They may also believe the court system protects police officers and their actions. When the police officers weren’t convicted of the charges, this viewpoint was reinforced.
Many white Americans tend to view the police and the criminal justice system in fairly positive terms. They may view police officers as public servants who maintain law and order, and may believe that the criminal justice system punishes those who break the law.