Race a factor in divide between some black, white perceptions of Kobe Bryant case

Updated: August 30, 2003, 5:57 PM ET

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A sexual assault charge against a glamorous all-star in any sport would catch Americans' attention. But with Kobe Bryant, a black man, facing an accusation from a white woman, many Americans are viewing the case through the filter of race as much as sex or celebrity.

While some say race shouldn't be a factor in the Bryant situation, recent polls show a wide divergence in white and black sympathies toward the Los Angeles Lakers player.

White supremacists who scattered fliers headlined "Don't have sex with blacks" in Eagle, Colo., earlier this month said they were doing so in response to the case. And in conversations with people around the country, it's not unusual to hear comparisons between Bryant's case and the racially polarizing murder trial of O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s.

Once the Bryant trial gets underway, "Trust me, race will be a huge issue," said Mike Paul, who is black and is president of MGP & Associates PR, a New York reputation management and crisis public relations firm.

"We'd like to say, 'Come on, hasn't our nation gotten to a point where we don't have to talk about race?' We're not even close," he said.

Bryant is accused of assaulting a 19-year-old hotel worker at a Colorado resort in a mostly white community on June 30. Bryant has claimed his accuser had consensual sex with him.

Two CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls conducted in late July and early August found that 63 percent of blacks surveyed felt sympathetic to Bryant, compared to 40 percent of whites. About 68 percent of blacks said the charges of sexual assault are not true, but only 41 percent of whites said the same.

At a pickup basketball game in Berkeley, where most of the players were black, many saw the case as another in a long history of injustices against black men. They told personal stories of what they saw as unfair treatment by police, and wondered if Bryant will receive a fair trial.

"He's stupid for ever getting this close to a white woman," said 18-year-old Joseph Abhulimen, a Nigerian-American. "You go back to history, black men weren't supposed to look at white women in any sexual way. People were getting lynched for that."

"A black guy's more likely to be falsely accused than anyone else in American society," said Robert Johnson, a black carpenter watching the pickup game from beneath the shade of a tree. "You've got a two-tier society and criminal justice system -- one for whites and one for blacks, one for wealthy and one for poor."

Bryan Fair, a law professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said that views of the case were influenced by underlying perceptions and experiences.

"If one perceives racial bias in the system, when asked the question, 'Do you think Kobe is guilty?' I think the response, even before the evidence, may be, 'No, I don't think so, I think this is another case of the system going after a prominent African-American male," said Fair, who is black.

But at a downtown San Francisco sports bar, where a mostly white group of patrons watched baseball after work, some said they are inclined to believe the charges -- though they were careful to say they didn't know all the facts.

Others focused on their sympathy for Bryant's accuser. "I'm very concerned about the victim in this case," said lawyer Jim Hargarten, who is white. "I think she's going to be ravaged by this case."

Both blacks and whites mentioned O.J. Simpson, whose acquittal at his criminal trial for the 1994 deaths of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman divided the groups. Most whites concluded the verdict was wrong, while most blacks favored it.

Like Simpson, who combined spectacular success on the football field with acting and football commentary careers, Bryant may have transcended racial boundaries experienced by many black men.

Bryant and others, including Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, have been viewed as athletes first and black men second, said Tony N. Brown, assistant sociology professor at Vanderbilt University.

But, he noted, that "doesn't last long. At the first sign of trouble, race comes right in the picture."

The case also points to how, for blacks, one person's actions are often applied to the entire race, said Todd Boyd, author of the forthcoming "Young Black Rich & Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture."

"To me, the essence of the way racism works in this country is white people are seen as individuals, and so what they say or what they do is linked to them as individuals," said Boyd. "Nobody will extend from their actions something one person has done to indict the whole race."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index