- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

NEW YORK CITY. — Every media circus needs its sideshow. Michael Jackson’s acquittal appeared to leave the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Jackson adviser and major megaphone for racial anger, awkwardly with precious little to be angry about.

“I think the criminal justice system has worked this time,” Mr. Sharpton shouted over Midtown Manhattan traffic into a bouquet of microphones. “I think this is a vindication for people that believe people are innocent until proven guilty. … We can say that this jury decided the evidence was not there and they acquitted him. … It is good for America. Michael deserved the same rights as any other citizen.”

Mr. Sharpton spoke to a scrum of reporters, including me, outside the headquarters of Mr. Jackson’s record label, Sony Music. I asked Mr. Sharpton if he would advise Mr. Jackson to “change his lifestyle,” which famously includes his proclivity for sleeping with young boys. The Harlem minister only hinted he might: “I plan to advise Michael to take a long period of reflection and to be deliberate and sober from here on.” Right. Tell him to choose older roommates while he’s at it, too.

One was left only to imagine what Mr. Sharpton would have said had Jackson been found guilty, which many people believe he was, based simply on appearances, regardless of the strength or weaknesses of the witnesses and evidence in court.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton protested here together in 2002 after Mr. Jackson’s last album failed to sell as well as his earlier ones. Mr. Jackson accused his label and former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola of “racism.” That was a revelatory statement, since a couple of decades of plastic surgeries, hair straightenings and skin lightening had turned Mr. Jackson’s race into a matter of deep mystery.

The bogus-sounding racism charge also revealed how seriously Mr. Jackson was in denial of how his career was sliding from its stratospheric heights. That’s show biz.

Race stalks the Michael Jackson trial like a ghost. Mr. Sharpton didn’t bring it up on this occasion, but several black bystanders who came up to me did. Anxious concerns that several black bystanders expressed before the verdict reminded me of how, as much as white Americans seemed perfectly happy to stop talking about Michael Jackson’s race long ago, black folks just can’t seem to stop.

I also find it interesting as an African-American that so many black folks I know still view Michael Jackson as black, compared to the many white folks I know who are quite comfortable to see him as someone trying very hard not to be black.

I know I will offend some people simply by bringing up the race issue in the Jackson case. But it’s always there in many minds, whether the rest of us like it or not. Remember how shocked Americans were when the Simpson verdict came in? We were shocked because we hadn’t had an honest dialogue about race in the country beforehand.

When TV footage showed whites crying while blacks cheered after the Simpson verdict, blacks were not cheering because they necessarily loved O.J. They were cheering because his high-profile trial reminded so many people of their own relations with the criminal justice system, relations that have tended to be a lot worse for blacks than they have for whites.

The Harris Poll was the first to report before the Simpson trial that a large majority of whites thought he was guilty, while most African-Americans believed him innocent. Another Harris Poll last year found black and white perceptions of guilt or innocence were similarly polarized about Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and even domestic goddess Martha Stewart. Again, I would submit, the reason has less to do with the race of the defendants than with how blacks tend to have more negative personal or family experiences with police and prosecutors.

That’s also why we have not seen many blacks dancing in the streets over Michael Jackson’s not-guilty verdict. Just because you’re not guilty, as the old saying goes, doesn’t mean you’re innocent, Michael.

To paraphrase an old Jackson tune, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white (or whatever) when it comes to feeling revulsion over Mr. Jackson’s weird sleeping habits.

A lot of Mr. Jackson’s old fans like me hope he takes Mr. Sharpton’s advice, looks at the man in the mirror and asks him to change his ways.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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