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In death, O.J. Simpson and his trial verdict still reflect America's racial divides

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In death, O.J. Simpson and his trial verdict still reflect America's racial divides
April 12, 2024
GRAHAM LEE BREWER and AARON MORRISON - AP

For many people old enough to remember O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, his 1995 exoneration was a defining moment in their understanding of race, policing and justice. Nearly three decades later, it still reflects the different realities of white and Black Americans.

Some people recall watching their Black coworkers and classmates erupting in jubilation at perceived retribution over institutional racism. Others remember their white counterparts shocked over what many felt was overwhelming evidence of guilt. Both reactions reflected different experiences with a criminal justice system that continues to disproportionately punish Black Americans.

Simpson, who died Wednesday, remains a symbol of racial divisions in American society because he is a reminder of how deeply the inequities are felt, even as newer figures have come to symbolize the struggles around racism, policing and justice.

“It wasn’t really about O.J. Simpson the man. It was about the rest of the society and how we responded to him,” said Justin Hansford, a Howard University law professor.

Simpson died of prostate cancer in Las Vegas, his family announced Thursday. He was 76.

His death comes just a few months before the 30th anniversary of the 1994 killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Much like the trial, the public’s reaction to the verdict was largely shaped by race.

Today, criminal justice reforms that address racial inequities are less divisive. But that has been replaced by backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion programs, bans of books that address systemic racism, and restrictions around Black history lessons in public schools.

“The hard part is we’re going to keep cycling through this until we learn from our past,” said University of Pennsylvania sociologist and Africana Studies professor Camille Charles. “But there are people who don’t want us to learn from our past.”

During the trial, African Americans were four times as likely to presume Simpson was innocent or being set up by the police, said UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt, who at the time was a young sociologist writing a book about the different ways Black and white Americans saw the trial.

“The case was about two different views of reality or two different takes on the reality of race in America at that point in history,” he said.

Simpson’s trial came on the heels of the 1992 acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which was caught on video and exposed America’s deep trauma over police brutality. For many African Americans in 1995, Simpson’s acquittal represented a rebuke of institutional racism in the justice system. But many white Americans believed Simpson and his defense team played the race card to get away with murder.

The difference could also be seen in the ways Black media outlets covered the trial compared to mainstream publications, Hunt said. Those outlets tended to raise questions about whether the justice system was really fair in terms of "what might be called the Black experience,” he said.

Polling in the last decade shows most people still believe Simpson committed the murders, including most African Americans, but the racial and historical dynamics at play in the trial made it about more than the murders.

Hansford, the Howard University law professor who is Black and was 12 years old at the time of the Simpson verdict, said he remembers the differences in white and Black reactions even in liberal environments like Silver Spring, Maryland, the Washington suburb where he grew up.

“When he was acquitted, all the Black students celebrated and ran into the hallways, jumping up and down,” he said. “And the white teachers were crying.”

One of Hansford’s white teachers said something about Simpson that he didn’t agree with, and when he responded, the teacher rebuked him.

“It was one of the worst ways a teacher has ever talked to me,” Hansford said. “The O.J. Simpson trial created a situation where people were dug into their sides.”

The racial turmoil embedded in the court case was at the center of the 2016 Oscar-winning documentary “OJ: Made in America.” Instead of focusing on the murders and the evidence presented at trial, director Ezra Edelman placed the crimes within the context of the Civil Rights struggle, from which Simpson was largely insulated by the warm embrace of the white mainstream.

“All O.J. had to do to get recognized is to run a football," Edelman told the AP in 2016. "And almost concurrent to that you have a community of people whose only way to get recognized is to burn their community down during the (1965 Watts) riots. Those were the two tracks I was trying to home in on, knowing that they will intersect 30 years later.”

Simpson had married a white woman in a nation that had historically punished Black men who dared to explore mixed-race relationships. But Simpson also was a former football star, a wealthy Hollywood actor and brand spokesman whose money and privilege distinguished him from impoverished Black men that the criminal justice system punished.

“I’m not Black, I’m O.J.,” he liked to tell friends.

He had been admired as a one-of-a-kind celebrity whose transgressions, including a pattern of spousal abuse, were overlooked as incompatible with his All-American persona.

“He actually seemed to go to quite a bit of trouble to distance himself from Black folks," but the Black support for him wasn't about that, said Charles, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist. “I think it was about seeing the system work the way we were told it was supposed to.”

Even as systemic racism in criminal justice systems remains an issue, Charles thinks Black Americans have grown less likely to believe in a famous defendant’s innocence as a show of race solidarity.

“The one thing that has changed is that you didn’t see the same kind of getting behind (R&B singer) R. Kelly or Bill Cosby,” Charles said.

“There was much more open conflict about them, and many more Black people were willing to say publicly, ‘Nah, he did that.’ I think it also could represent a better understanding of celebrity and wealth,” she said.

___

Graham Lee Brewer reported from Oklahoma City, and Aaron Morrison from New York. They are members of AP's Race and Ethnicity team.

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