I was eight years old when the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced in the fall of 1995. If I was cognizant enough to see that the trial was a big effing deal, I neither knew nor cared much about why and emerged with the impression merely that some famous ex-football player had been acquitted of a terrible crime that everyone in America knew he had committed.
Today—after more than two decades of human events and two excellent TV miniseries on this very subject—I sense that I have finally—finally!—caught up with the rest of America in understanding what the O.J. “not guilty” verdict truly meant: Namely, that after 400 years of white people getting away with murder by taking the law into their own hands, it was long past due for black people to do the same—if only to prove, just this once, that they could.
If you grew up—as I did—in an affluent white suburb where racial tension was more urban legend than reality, you might have been forgiven in 1995 for not getting why race—or rather, racism—was the central drama underpinning the double murder trial of one of the most beloved celebrities in America. Even now—with an additional 21 years’ of state-sanctioned white supremacy in action—it’s still an open question whether racism was even remotely relevant to the Simpson case and/or whether the “race card” should ever have been played.
Yet when you consider the O.J. fiasco in a broader cultural context—as both of these new TV programs have forced us to do—you begin to grasp the logic of both the defense team’s arguments and the jury’s final decision: Each was a rebuttal to a criminal justice system designed not to give black (and other non-white) defendants a fair shot. At some point, the case ceased being about Simpson’s guilt and became a referendum on whether any black man accused of any crime could be treated fairly in a white society patrolled by white policemen, white lawyers, white judges and white juries.
Indeed, in arguably the most electric moment in the new ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America, we are told point-blank by one of the 12 original jurors—speaking for herself, if not the others—that the “not guilty” verdict was payback for the treatment of Rodney King in 1991. Since white members of the Los Angeles Police Department had behaved disgracefully and dishonestly in that instance, who’s to say they hadn’t behaved similarly in this one? Further, since the officers who kicked and clobbered King had gotten off scot-free—thanks, presumably, to an inherently racist system—didn’t the O.J. jury—a panel that was 75 percent black—have a moral imperative to ensure such a thing didn’t happen again?
As we can see, there are really two separate questions at play. First, should the apparent systemic racism within the LAPD be taken as evidence, in and of itself, that O.J. Simpson might have been framed for murder? And second, do the accumulated past examples of prejudicial behavior against black defendants justify acquitting one particular black defendant against whom, it would appear, no such prejudice existed?
This is no small distinction. In practice, there’s a world of difference between treating the LAPD with appropriate skepticism versus proactively punishing it for sins it committed in the past but hasn’t necessarily committed in the present. You might call it the difference between justice and vengeance, in which case the question becomes: Can vengeance ever be a form of justice and (while we’re at it) are there scenarios—such as, say, the Simpson case—in which vengeance, in any form, is the correct response to a problem (e.g. institutional white supremacy) that demands a solution one way or another?
Put simply: If the O.J. jury found Simpson not guilty strictly to avenge every previous defendant who’d gotten screwed by the LAPD—and not, mind you, because they truly thought Simpson was not guilty—could we say that justice had been served?
First things first. With more than two decades of hindsight at our disposal, it remains as clear as ever that O.J. Simpson definitely killed his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. The preponderance of direct evidence—namely, the trail of blood containing DNA of all three people—paired with circumstantial evidence regarding Simpson’s long history of physical abuse and his want of an alibi on the night of the murders, is enough for a contemporary jury to find him guilty at least 99 times out of 100. Indeed, the strength of the DNA evidence alone may well be sufficient to avert a trial altogether and lead, instead, to some kind of plea deal whereby Simpson would either claim momentary insanity or—considering his privileged position in society—an acute case of “affluenza.”
The trouble in 1994-95 was that the general public did not understand the magic of DNA the way we do now. The jurors, for their part, couldn’t make head or tail of what the pools of blood proved or didn’t prove, and into that vacuum—thanks to Johnnie Cochran and company—was placed the notion that a fanatically racist cop, Mark Fuhrman—the man who found the famous leather glove—had both the motivation and the wherewithal to plant evidence on the fly that made Simpson the only possible culprit.
As it happens, Fuhrman did no such thing. The defense, for all its insinuations, never demonstrated how such tampering might have occurred—not least because it was physically impossible for Fuhrman to have gotten away with it. As prosecutor Marcia Clark caustically says in the ESPN documentary, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have. Otherwise, I’m with them.” (“Them” in this case being the entire African-American community.)
Hence the breathtaking irony that defined the entire saga: Here, a basically corrupt cop was being scapegoated for a case in which—maybe for the first time in his life—he had behaved more or less as he was supposed to. Add to that the even greater irony that Simpson himself—a man who hated being defined by his blackness—would become a poster child for the tragedy of the black experience in America, and you have the perfect storm of conflict that this case was perhaps destined to become.
If there was a thousand-pound elephant somewhere in the courtroom—a subtext that dare not speak its name—it would’ve been the specter of reparations—the idea that black Americans, as a group, are owed something from white Americans that the latter have every obligation to pay and thus far have not.
While most white Americans think of reparations strictly in terms of slavery—an institution that conveniently ended before any of us could be born and assume responsibility for it—it has lately been definitively argued—perhaps most memorably by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic—that any debts owed to African-Americans must also cover such comparatively recent, but no less unjust, phenomena as housing discrimination, voter discrimination, employment discrimination and, naturally, discrimination in the legal and criminal justice systems.
Despite our so-called best efforts, we all know that black and white citizens are not treated equally in all facets of our society—a cursory look at our prison population makes the point plain enough—and that even if we magically resolved all of those inequalities tomorrow, it would not absolve the white folks who have long benefited from this arrangement of responsibility for all the harm they have caused up until now.
Given how intractable the racial justice gap continues to be—how nothing seems to change no matter how much our leaders claim to try—what choice do we humble citizens have than to surreptitiously tip the scales whenever we get the chance?
The O.J. Simpson verdict might’ve been a miscarriage of justice in the strictest sense—after all, it allowed a wife-beater to literally get away with murder—but it was also a signal—a warning, in fact—that there would be real and richly-deserved consequences for police departments that didn’t take the concept of “blind justice” seriously.
It was an assertion—however imperfect the circumstances—that black lives matter.