On Oct. 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. But few people today still defend his innocence. Even Simpson suspended his search for the "real" killer long enough to come perilously close to admitting guilt, including in his semi-confessional book, "If I Did It."
But 13 years ago, the question of Simpson's guilt and the "meaning" of his trial were the most debated issues in America. According to Talkers magazine, the Simpson case was the most bandied topic of the first half of 1990s.
White liberals played along too. "I think the general black attitude might be that white people place a huge emphasis on innocent or guilty because that way they can discard large social questions," explained Norman Mailer in the New York Times Magazine. "A focus on individual innocence or guilt works to the white establishment's advantage." Got that? White people emphasized guilt or innocence in a murder trial because of systemic racism.
Some of Simpson's defenders obviously had legitimate complaints about the criminal justice system historically. But they turned Mailer's point on its head. They didn't want to discuss guilt or innocence at all; they only wanted to discuss the establishment.
To Wilbert Tatum, editor of the black weekly Amsterdam News, Simpson "became every black male who's ever been involved in the criminal justice system." This was an opportunity, as so many said at the time, to "put the system on trial."
"Now we recognize that in a fundamental sense, we really do live in different worlds," Cornel West pronounced in the New Yorker shortly after the not-guilty verdict. He added, as if to illustrate the point, "I think he's innocent, I really do."
The National Enquirer covered the trial fearlessly. You couldn't say the same thing about many other media outlets. "Fear of being called racist transcended everything in the newsroom," wrote the New Yorker's legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin -- only after he deemed it was safe. "Our caution and fear, however, misled. The case against Simpson was simply overwhelming. When we said otherwise, we lied to the audience that trusted us."
While countless white liberals joined the effort to change to focus on the system, conservatives considered the acquittal proof that the system was broken from the other end. They thundered about the "death of outrage," particularly on the part of the milquetoast media, which knew he was guilty.
Now Simpson is finally going to prison. Alas, not for murder but for, among other things, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping. This time everyone appears well pleased. The evidence against Simpson is hardly more damning than the billion-to-one DNA evidence last time. Yet no one sees Simpson as an indictment of the system this time around.
Given that Barack Obama's every utterance seems to spur the minting of a new commemorative plate to the cause of racial progress, you'd think more would be made of the ironic timing of Simpson's conviction.
The only sustained controversy of Obama's campaign arose over his pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s bilious rhetoric, which Obama largely defused with his "A More Perfect Union" speech on race. Though eloquently written and compellingly delivered, it was often contradictory and deeply self-serving. The best part, however, was his explanation of his objection to Wright's ravings.
"The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country ... is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
Obama's hopes for this country and mine differ, to be sure. But on this point, Obama was absolutely right. America's racial story begins horribly with slavery but has become one of unfolding success. Those who saw Simpson as a symbol of permanent division and the impossibility of progress were wrong. What better proof of that is there than that Obama, the nation's first black president, will be figuring out the floor plan at the White House at almost exactly the same moment Simpson will be figuring out how the toilet works in his cell.
O.J., Obama and race in America
As the new president scopes out the White House, O.J. will be checking out his new prison cell.
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