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Monday, May 27, 2024

Outrunning race

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Last week brought the news that O.J. Simpson had died from prostate cancer. Any sentient being older than 40 knows that the former football star, actor and pitch man was acquitted in a criminal trial in 1995 of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. That courtroom drama, which was appropriately dubbed “The Trial of the Century”, continues to beguile us as America perpetually grapples with race – its congenital moral trap door.

That whole affair was, and arguably remains, the quintessential racial Rorschach test. In general, white Americans and Black Americans examined the same set of facts in this case (as well as innumerable others) and saw very different things. Some argue that “the media” caused this divide by incessantly focusing on the race of the victims in comparison to the race of the accused.

However, surveys that were taken right after the murders strongly indicated that views regarding Simpson’s guilt or innocence were usually racially-based. This is not to mention the fact that the Supreme Court had outlawed interracial marriage a scant 27 years before the murders.

Then came the verdict. For most African Americans, Simpson’s acquittal signaled one of the very few cases in which a Black man was able to prevail in a criminal legal system that has always been intentionally stacked against them. For most white Americans, however, the verdict was a toxic cocktail of class and race. That is, a wealthy Black man was able to hire a “Dream Team” of attorneys who convinced a predominantly Black jury to acquit Simpson because of his race. For the record, Black people did not cheer the verdict because they felt that O.J. “got away with murder”; they cheered because they felt that, for once, they had obtained a collective victory.

This sense of imputed vindication acted as a counterbalance to centuries of gross miscarriages of justice. Indeed, “miscarriage of justice” seems inadequate. What Black people have generally experienced in America is aborted justice. For most white people, incidents of racism are a series of unconnected, “one-off” events – a collection of the “coincidental.” (This is notwithstanding the fact that there are relatively few cases in which Blacks and whites agree that race is a factor.)

By contrast, most Black people view these events (such as the murder of unarmed Black men by police) as a nearly unbroken chain of injustices that stretch back to pre-colonial days. To that end, it’s important to remember that the Simpson trial came on the heels of the acquittal of four white police officers (by a predominantly white jury) in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. White Americans accused the predominantly Black jury in the Simpson case of exacting “payback” for the King verdict. And around we go.

I will not opine as to whether I believe Simpson to be innocent or guilty. However, I will acknowledge that Alan Dershowitz’s sentiment resonates with me. Dershowitz, who was one of Simpson’s attorneys, said:

“I’m very sympathetic with the Goldmans and the Brown family and I wish I could have been on their side, but I wasn’t. And in the end, I think history will remember O.J. Simpson as someone who possibly did it, but who the police tried to frame.”  

There’s the rub. I believe that O.J. Simpson was much more likely to have been convicted of the murders had the LAPD not tried to frame him – or at least had done a better job of covering up their efforts to do so. That, plus the fact that then-Detective Mark Fuhrman asserted his fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when directly asked if he had planted evidence against Simpson. The fact that he did not emphatically answer “no” was astonishing. For me, that was infinitely more important than the gloves not fitting.

Tragically, this case was never primarily about justice for the murder victims. It was about the vastly unequal lived experiences of Black people as compared to white people, especially in regard to the police and the court system. Even when we reside on the same street we live in different worlds. That leads to perspectives that are often incompatible, even irreconcilable. Indeed, the fact that I capitalize the word “Black” (for historical, cultural, and political reasons) is more disturbing to many white people than the historical and contemporary racism that led to such capitalization becoming so common.

While I strongly oppose the death penalty that judges are empowered to impose, I am even stronger in my conviction that God metes out justice for those who murder others. Thus, I believe that whoever killed Ms. Simpson and Mr. Goldman will ultimately pay for doing so.

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