Photographer: MYUNG J. CHUN/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks, Bill Coleman, for Teaching Me a Lesson

Race doesn't matter, except when it does.

My first big journalism assignment was covering President Richard Nixon's regimen of wage and price controls. So I drove to Philadelphia during the Christmas holidays in 1971 to meet a member of the price-control commission, a prominent lawyer named William T. Coleman.

He welcomed me, politely but with a barbed question. I’d written a profile of the commission members that included a reference to Robert Lanzillotti, who was then the dean of the business school at the University of Florida.

"Why didn't you call Lanzillotti the Italian business school dean?" Coleman asked. I replied that I thought his university affiliation was more relevant.

Coleman shot back: "Then why did you call me a prominent black lawyer?"

I didn't have a good answer.

Coleman, who died on Friday at 96, was undoubtedly a prominent black lawyer. The first African-American Supreme Court clerk, he was co-author of a key brief in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. Later he became the first African-American partner in the prestigious Philadelphia law firm of ex-Mayor Richardson Dilworth.  

But his professional accomplishments deserve to stand alone, unqualified by racial categorization, just as accounts of Lanzillotti’s academic success need no reference to his ethnicity.

I thought I’d learned that lesson, so when President Gerald Ford named Coleman transportation secretary in 1975, I was careful not to write that Coleman would be the second black cabinet member.

But I was to be chastised again. It was two decades later, during the trial of O.J. Simpson, the football star who was acquitted in 1995, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of killing his wife and her friend. On a television program, I expressed contempt for the verdict.

Coleman called me. "What the hell makes you think you know so much more than that jury?" he demanded to know. I was taken aback. How could this incredibly smart man defend the indefensible thought of O.J. Simpson's innocence?

It took awhile this time, but I came to understand his point. If you were a black juror in Los Angeles, where cops had mistreated African Americans and were infamous for manipulating evidence, you too might be inclined toward a not guilty verdict. The classic 2016 Ezra Edelman ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” shows us once more how the Simpson case was about race and injustice as well as guilt and innocence.

And if today I had told Coleman, a lifelong Republican, that the U.S. had made much racial progress since that day we met in Philadelphia he would, no doubt, have said: Yeah, and look who's attorney general and president of the United States.

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