Maybe Chris Darden was just doing his job
The O.J. prosecutor made mistakes, but why was he deemed a race traitor?
Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial, sat on Oprah Winfrey’s couch in February 1997, multiple TV cameras fixed on him, millions watching. “I thought,” he said, “I was performing an important service for my community. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
Winfrey then reached down for a white sheet of paper, a letter, dated Oct. 4, 1995, penned by one of Darden’s many black detractors. “You have been a disgrace, to the black community,” she read, accentuating both syllables in “disgrace.” “How could you be such an Uncle Tom? You sold out your black people for publicity and kissed the white man’s a–…. You are not wanted as a black person, Uncle Tom. Good riddance.”
“It was painful,” Darden replied. “It was painful. At first and for a long time.”
I wrote a book about Uncle Tom, which I called “the most venomous epithet blacks can hurl at one another.” I examined blacks, both famous and not, who endured that cobra’s ferocious bite, including Darden. Many seek to drown the slur, believing it has no place in black folks’ vocabulary.
But racial treachery exists. And whoever exhibits it should be attacked. Darden, though, committed no treasonous acts.
Yet, Darden was brutalized for racial betrayal during the trial and long after it. He conducted interviews after the not-guilty verdict, depicting himself as a victim, forced to tend to his wounds, much like any black person stranded on the wrong side of a racial controversy.
Revisiting the tale of Darden two decades later, two points come into sharper focus: First, violating some cultural rules invites vociferous and sometimes undeserved condemnation, and, second, black folk often allow whites’ perceptions of the race to lead to the mistreatment of one another.
Simpson’s defense attorneys, nicknamed the Dream Team, sought at a pretrial hearing in January 1995 to include evidence they hoped would demonstrate that Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Furhman was racist. The attorneys, more specifically, wished to put before the majority-black jury instances in which Fuhrman was said to have detonated the N-word bomb.
Darden balked. That word floating around during the trial might inhibit black jurors from impartially interpreting the evidence because, Darden claimed in court, “it will blind [them] to the truth.”
“If you allow Mr. [Johnnie] Cochran to use the race card,” Darden argued to Judge Lance Ito, “the entire complexion of this case changes. It is not an issue of guilt or innocence, it’s an issue of color. Who’s the blackest man up here? The jury will forget about the evidence. All they’ll think of is ‘frame-up.’ ”
“It’s demeaning to our jury,” Cochran countered, “to say that African-Americans who’ve lived under oppression for 200-plus years in this country cannot work in the mainstream. African-Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives. And yet they still believe in this country.
“I am ashamed that Mr. Darden would allow himself to become an apologist for this man [Fuhrman].”
Looking back, Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor and former federal prosecutor, rejects Darden’s argument.
“Darden tells the world that when you have a case where a black defendant and the main witness is a lying racist police officer who has called people n—–, that that’s not relevant. I think a lot of African-Americans would probably reject that message.”
Cochran’s remark visibly angered Darden, who later said Cochran “was saying to African-Americans … that I was a race traitor, [that] I was an Uncle Tom. I wasn’t to be trusted.”
Darden was correct. But one can understand why he argued his point.
When the Simpson trial began, the specter of the Los Angeles riots still lingered, a chaos rupturing the city along its racial fault lines. Countless tales of police brutality convinced black folk the LAPD frequently enforced white supremacy, not always law. Darden wanted this context — the context of a city embroiled in racial strife, the context of a minority population distrusting its police officers — divorced from the legal proceedings. He preferred that the case be focused on the strong physical evidence leading to Simpson being a double murderer.
Darden erred. His argument slighted black folks’ capacity to hold two thoughts simultaneously: Fuhrman was a racist and Simpson killed two people. And he paid a price that pained his psyche.
“Your honor,” Darden said, standing at the podium, “now at this time, the people would ask that Mr. Simpson step forward to try on the [gloves].”
What followed next is engrained in American history: Simpson shrugged his hulking shoulders then lifted his hands in the air, revealing bloody gloves uncomfortably situated on his large hands, a nonverbal communication that they were too small.
Don’t ask a question you don’t know the answer to. Lawyers, careful creatures, live by that maxim. Prosecutors, as best they can, plot the entire trial, showcasing a narrative that jurors end themselves by, prosecutors hope, providing a guilty verdict.
But Darden couldn’t know how the scene would close once Simpson tried on the gloves. And many thought Darden, therefore, had sinned in allowing the defendant to write the script. His fellow prosecutors on the case certainly did. After the gloves didn’t fit, Darden was, for a time, denied involvement in the prosecution’s strategy. Still, he remained on the team.
Butler contended that Darden should have bowed out, writing six months after the verdict, “In that situation I inform my white colleagues that my black skin comes with a brain and they don’t get one without the other.”
Twenty years later, Butler hasn’t changed his mind: “So essentially he was being used as a token. He was being used. His black skin was being used to send a message to the jurors that they should not have concerns about racial justice in this prosecution but basically his brain was placed on ice. The prosecution team was like, ‘We want your body. [But] we don’t want your brain.’ And for him to allow himself to be used like that wasn’t the right thing to do.”
Black folk rightly bristle when black people permit their melanin to torment the group. The situation typically arises when blacks employ their black skin in ways that normalize racist arguments. Our eyes roll when a black person enables a white person to say, “That’s not racist; [insert black person] here said it.” Let’s term this the Stacey Dash phenomenon.
Although Butler’s outlook is understandable, we have no reason to necessarily view this through a racial lens. Why not depict Darden as suffering the consequences of his errors but staying on to redeem himself later?
Requiring Darden to leave the prosecution team applies unbearable weight to living while black that we mustn’t force each other to shoulder.
Darden’s participation in the Simpson trial became an issue the moment his inclusion was announced. The state wanted his black skin, so goes the theory, to send a message to black jurors: Darden, a black watchdog, ensures nothing nefarious transpires behind the curtains. A popular opinion held that Darden, therefore, should have declined the opportunity that his white bosses never would have extended but for him being black.
Such thinking is deeply problematic. This position means, essentially, that we should allow white people’s thought processes to govern how we evaluate opportunities: Darden should have declined this position, not because he didn’t want it, but because whites wanted him to have it.
Such misguided reasoning requires us to outsource decision-making to whites. What we individually want means nothing. We should, instead, oppose whites’ wishes, no matter what, lest we expose ourselves to ridicule.
But what of our own hopes and desires? Are we to treat the white gaze as an omnipotent wind that navigates our boat no matter how we position the sails?
The slave ceases to be a slave, not when he opposes his master, but when he no longer has one.
William Jorden, an assistant district attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has no qualms with Darden prosecuting Simpson. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that every prosecutor is ethically obligated, if they believe in the case or if it is a case that is prosecutable, then yes, they should be able to prosecute that case.”
If the evidence convinced Darden of Simpson’s guilt and if he believed his skills could bring the victims and their families closer to justice, he should have emptied his soul into confining Simpson behind bars.
Darden, however, committed a similar faux pas. “While we were focusing all of our attention and energy on what might happen to this convicted batterer and rich African-American who has done nothing but turn his back on his community,” Darden said, “we lost affirmative action — probably forever.”
His claim seems to be that black folk should have considered any defense of Simpson with an eye focused on white people’s perceptions. Because whites might retaliate by ending affirmative action, Simpson’s black supporters should have re-evaluated their actions.
This same bad logic abused Darden when he agreed to prosecute Simpson. He, without irony, wielded a weapon identical to that which maimed him before.
“I understand,” Darden wrote in his memoir, “that some black prosecutors have a name for the pressure they feel from those in the community who criticize them for standing up and convicting black criminals. They call it the ‘Darden Dilemma.’ ”
The Darden Dilemma attracted much attention in the wake of the Simpson trial. But do blacks truly watch black prosecutors with a raised eyebrow?
Butler said that when he was a prosecutor from 1990 to 1993, “I would go to criminal court and I would say, ‘My name is Paul Butler and I represent the people.’ The jurors who were mainly African-American would just beam at me. They would be so proud. They were expecting that there was going to be a black defendant and they were always right about that. What they were not expecting was an African-American prosecutor. And they were very happy to see me.”
Jorden reports a different experience.
“I deal with that every day now,” he said, referring to skepticism from black people. “I remember the first time I was in a courtroom in Orleans [Parish] on the prosecution side. I had a friend of mine jokingly say, ‘Oh, Will, you work for the people now.’ And again, it’s a joke, but I understand what it means. I’m fighting it, and I’m dealing with it every single day.”
The criminal justice system now, as since its inception, operates as a machine that produces racist results. To change that system, we must, amongst other things, deepen the shallow pool of black prosecutors.
The numbers should horrify us. Ninety-five percent of nation’s elected prosecutors are white and 60 percent of states have no elected black prosecutors.
As racial justice advocates exhaust themselves trying to increase those numbers, the image of Christopher Darden demands a permanent place in our minds, serving to remind all how the career of a prosecutor must become more tolerable for blacks and how black prosecutors must make the career more tolerable for themselves.