NEW YORK – His once broad nose has been surgically whittled to the size of a pencil. His formerly brown skin is now off-white. His woolly afro has been replaced by a sleek, straightened 'do.
Michael Jackson's (search) physical transformation — along with his two marriages to white women — has led to questions about his standing in the black community. But since his arrest on child molestation charges, some blacks have reacted as if a family member were in handcuffs.
Even though Jackson and some other black stars "seem like they hang around with white folks all the time, even though they distance themselves from us seemingly, at the end of the day, we still claim them," says Jamie Foster Brown, publisher of the celebrity monthly magazine Sister 2 Sister. "Because when black people get in trouble, white people tend to look at the whole race anyway."
Jackson certainly has plenty of black detractors, as well as non-black supporters like his friend Elizabeth Taylor (search). But judging by the response to his arrest from chat rooms, radio broadcasts and man-on-the-street conversations, there is more willingness in the black community to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt.
"I did a vigil," said Audrey Martin, a 58-year-old retired home care attendant from Fairfield, Calif. "He can't change that he's black, He's black whether or not he wanted to get rid of the black nose."
"African-Americans have had an extremely negative experience with the criminal justice system," says Roland Martin, founder and editor of the Web site BlackAmericaToday.com "We more than anybody else believe in innocent until proven guilty."
There has been a tinge of suspicion that the allegations against Jackson are about more than child abuse. Jermaine Jackson likened his brother's arrest to a "lynching."
It's a sentiment similar to when O.J. Simpson was charged with murder, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, and even as Kobe Bryant's (search) rape case proceeds.
"That's the first thing (blacks) say — the same thing with O.J. — they're trying to bring down a black man," says Brown. "There is a reason for that, because there's always been lynching, be it physical or otherwise, since slavery."
Fueling such beliefs are factors such as Jackson's home being raided on the same day his greatest hits album "Number Ones" was released, and the jovial demeanor of Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon as he announced the charges (Sneddon later apologized).
Jesse Jackson said the arrest was so "impeccably timed that it leads to even more suspicions. ... It seems aimed to destroy this media mogul."
He also questioned whether the singer was being treated more harshly than other celebrities — namely white ones. In an interview with The Associated Press, Jackson noted that the bail in Phil Spector's murder case was $1 million while Jackson's was $3 million, and questioned why there was no massive televised raid on Rush Limbaugh's home when reports surfaced that he had bought illegal drugs.
Evoking the cases of other black male celebrities who have been charged with crimes, he said: "One gets a sense that there is an emerging pattern here, and these high profile blacks who perhaps think they are the exception are maybe the example after all."
Black people defending Michael Jackson may seem bizarre to some, given his appearance and actions. Although Jackson has expressed black pride and blames his skin-lightening on vitiligo, a disease that causes pigment loss, he has been viewed as so far removed from his race, people joke he's no longer a member.
A recent commentary by Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy, who is black, described Jackson as "the first celebrity to physically transform himself from a black person to a Caucasian, or a facsimile of one." Aaron McGruder's comic strip "The Boondocks" regularly pillories Jackson, for example, and comedian Red Buttons once joked: "Only in America can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich white woman."
But it seems that black folks can always come home again.
"Has Michael lived a black existence? The answer is no. (But) look at O.J.," Roland Martin said. "O.J. Simpson had less a relationship with the black community than Michael Jackson, but you still saw a kind of 'circle the wagons."'
"This is sort of a tribal type of mentality that happens whether you're black or you're Hispanic or you're a police officer," he said.
Yet in many ways, Jackson hasn't been that far removed — at the BET Awards earlier this year, he got a standing ovation when he paid tribute to James Brown.
Whether he looks black or not, Grammy-winner Alicia Keys notes, "He IS. No matter what, he is, and he's like a success story."
"He's been through a lot of stuff, and we've all been through a lot of stuff, and he's made it in a lot of ways," Keys said. "People look at him and have hope, like you can make it."
And perhaps, Roland Martin says, that's why some blacks take it so personally when they see Jackson being led away in handcuffs.
"African-Americans think that we have to protect our own," he said, "because that could happen to me."