O.J. Verdict Was Harbinger of Racial Tensions to Come

O.J. Simpson is dead, and I can’t say he’ll be missed.

He will be remembered chiefly for the brutal murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, along with his eventual and controversial acquittal.

If you were not around when it happened, it is hard to fully comprehend how much the O.J. trial was a major cultural event. Even more recent incidents, like the George Zimmerman or Casey Anthony trials, do not hold a candle.

We no longer have a common culture the way we did then. The common experience arose from people learning about the same events in the same ways—in this case, on television—rather than curating individualized sets of facts on the siloed internet sites of today.

In 1994, cable news was hitting its stride with the criminal trial industrial complex, where commenters like Greta van Susteren and Nancy Grace would soon become household names.

In 1994, O.J. had already achieved fame as an athlete, sports commentator, and actor. The accusation that he brutally stabbed his ex-wife and another person to death commanded attention. If the case were not already compelling enough, the whole country watched the infamous “low speed chase,” which occurred shortly after the murders and was coupled with suicide threats following O.J.’s failure to turn himself in.

The televised chase in O.J.’s white Bronco led many to believe that he must be guilty.

O.J. Hires the Dream Team

The trial went on for nearly a year. OJ’s “dream team” of lawyers were effective and telegenic. His counsel, Robert Kardashian, paved the way for his daughters’ eventual fame. Johnnie Cochran was smooth as silk in his mockery of the prosecution and ability to tap into the jury’s anxieties about police racism. Robert Shapiro kept the disparate and very egotistical group on the same page.

Cochran hit a home run in impeaching detective Mark Fuhrman’s implausible testimony of never using racial epithets; he exposed Fuhrman with audio tape doing exactly that. This ultimately ended Fuhrman’s career and tainted the entire prosecution’s case, even though the physical evidence remained compelling.

At the time, it was pretty obvious to most observers that O.J. was guilty. He had motive. He had a history of domestic violence. He had the means as a former professional athlete. His alibi was garbage. He tried to flee. His rare Bruno Magli shoes’ footprints were found in the victims’ blood. And DNA tied him to the crime scene, where a glove found in his yard, as well as his socks, each had some of the victim’s blood. It seemed to be an open-and-shut case.

That said, the prosecution had many missteps. To begin, they messed up jury selection. Marcia Clark seemed to think she could connect with jurors “as a woman” and allowed the jury to be made up disproportionately of black women. She learned the hard way that racial solidarity trumps identification with white women as victims of domestic violence. Beyond this, the prosecutors were extremely tedious and boring, failing to channel appropriate emotion at the appropriate times and to limit extensive, technical testimony.

Johnnie Cochran goaded prosecutor Chris Darden into asking O.J. to try on the “bloody glove,” which did not fit. Many thought O.J. ceased using arthritis drugs to make his hands swell to thwart the demonstration. Either way, this unforced error provided the foundation for Johnny Cochran’s brilliant summation: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Judge Ito generally did a terrible job of controlling the courtroom, taking forever to rule on dozens of evidentiary objections each day, often doing so only after lengthy sidebars. He was overawed and eventually run over by the “dream team.”

A Surprising Verdict and Surprisingly Divergent Reactions By Race

Even with these demerits, when the verdict came, it was a shock. Almost everyone thought O.J. did it. After months of compelling evidence and testimony, which people at home followed on cable news, the verdict seemed like a case of jury nullification based on racial solidarity with the defendant.

More surprising than the verdict were reactions to the verdict. Most whites were shocked and a little angry; after all, brutal double murders are as serious as it gets. But many respectable black colleagues and neighbors were not merely pleased at the acquittal but jubilant. You get a hint of the racially distinct reactions from this clip on Oprah.

This was all shocking, particularly given the general tone of the era. Objectively, race relations were much better in the 1990s than they were before or since. Oprah had become a big star, popular with all races. People lived, worked, and made friends across racial lines. Interracial relationships became more common and more accepted. Segregation and Jim Crow had been illegal for over 30 years.

Across-the-board prosperity, the decline of formal racism, the rise of the black middle class, and the consensus on the principles of colorblindness reduced a lot of day-to-day friction. In those days, Dinesh D’Souza could publish The End of Racism without a hint of irony. It was nothing like today’s culture of racial self-obsession and anti-white struggle sessions.

That said, hints of latent conflict persisted. Even with high incarceration rates, black crime remained high. This fueled white wariness of the black underclass while also supporting black distrust of the police, whom they tended to encounter more often. Like now, there were occasional punishments for noticing race in the wrong ways, such as the cancellation of Jimmy the Greek for speculating about the possible genetic origins of black athletic prowess.

Although not as censorious as today, even in the 1990s, certain uncomfortable truths were too hot to handle. Charles Murray authored the Bell Curve around this time, but its influence rarely extended beyond right-leaning academic circles. The belief in “blank slates” and excuses like “institutional racism” remained mostly immune from scrutiny.

Resting on such shaky foundations, much of the racial reconciliation taking place turned out to be paper thin, consisting at most of a mutual commitment to peace and civility. This is something valuable, but it did not change loyalties or world views.

The popular rhetoric of judging people by the “content of their character” would inevitably be refracted through the lenses of personal experience, prejudices about one’s group’s place in the world, and persistent inequalities between racial groups. Group loyalties persisted, particularly among minorities, who tend to be significantly more tribal and ethnocentric than the white majority.

What shocked whites most about the O.J. verdict was that the celebration was not simply confined to the underclass. One could dismiss the L.A. Riots or disproportionate black violent crime in general as the product of the underclass, a minority within a minority. Whites felt no real loyalty to members of the white underclass, whom they dismissed as troublesome outliers, and assumed upwardly mobile members of the black middle class would feel the same way.

By that time, most whites had gotten used to working alongside black Americans and were completely comfortable with black friends, neighbors, and colleagues. So seeing these same white-collar, well-dressed, civilized and law-abiding people cheering a violent murderer was shocking.

Even worse, many openly stated that their celebration did not hinge on the belief that he was innocent. As one lady said at the time, “Guilty or not, we love you, O. J.”

Keeping it Real

O.J. became a symbolic stand-in for the supposed scourge of black mistreatment by the police. We were supposed to believe that law-abiding black people were routinely being hassled, beat, and falsely accused of heinous crimes on account of their race, even though more blacks than ever appeared to be succeeding and establishing themselves.

Solidarity with the criminals and hostility toward authorities seem to arise from the belief that the criminal underclass was the most authentic black experience. Thus, the successful black middle class was conflicted. They worried that moving out to the suburbs and adopting white cultural mores meant “forgetting where you came from” and “being an Uncle Tom.”

After the O.J. trial, race relations were never quite the same. The initial shock soon wore off, but the ongoing tension ironically ended up paving the way for the rise of Barack Obama.

For whites, after two decades of declining interracial solidarity, there was a widespread hope that Obama would deliver the country from its racially balkanized politics and be a good role model for a persistently troubled black underclass. For blacks, he was the great hope: a telegenic, smart, and plausible candidate, loyal to his community, who would raise them up materially and spiritually.

For white people who could not bring themselves to rally for O.J., voting for Obama would allow them to prove they were not racist after all.

As we now know, both races perceived Obama’s victory and the meaning of his presidency very differently. While the media covered up the reality of Obama during the campaign, he showed his distorted worldview early on in siding with Professor Louis Gates, who acted like a jerk to a white cop investigating a burglary of Gates’ home.

This would not be the last time Obama perpetuated the corrosive narrative of widespread white racism and police brutality. Race relations had become much worse when Obama left office, lost in a wave of violence perpetrated under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Like the black middle class who cheered for O.J., black Americans rallied around the thuggish Trayvon Martin and the violent robber Michael Brown during the Obama years.

A myth of police brutality formed a rallying point for blacks, who faced few external obstacles but saw themselves as outside of the system and hostile to its standards of respectability. This alienation was present even among those at the pinnacle of wealth and power. Obama was president, after all, but he grimly told us that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin.

Obama did everything he could to drive a wedge between white and black Americans. But he found fertile ground in a black community that defined itself by its alienation. Rather than his presence healing racial divisions, this ongoing alienation should have been expected. It was already evident in the celebrations respectable black Americans made for the acquittal of the murderous O.J. Simpson 20 years earlier.

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (R) puts his arm on O.J. Simpson's (C) shoulder after Simpson told Judge Lance Ito 22 September 1995 in Los Angeles, CA, that he has faith that jurors will acquit him of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. At left is defense attorney Robert Blasier (L). (Photo credit should read REED SAXON/AFP via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. At the time, I worked on a floor with about 200 employees. There were two TV’s on our floor that were moved to opposite ends. The blacks and Latinos at one TV and the rest of us at the other.
    The blacks cheered and I was shocked. How could anyone think it was ok for a murderer to go free.

    But Obama’s actions were obvious. His stimulus loaded up funds for critical race theory, community organizers and all kinds of programs that would pit people against each other. Racism is a big money racket. The Deep State and Democrats need us divided and fighting. While we fight, they loot us.

  2. As despairing as some blacks are over the violence within the black community, they won’t lift a hand to solve it unless it can be solved by blacks alone, which is something that will never happen. Even the idea of tackling black violence makes them fearful of being labeled an Uncle Tom because they believe it would also help whites. It’s an impossible situation for blacks and the rest of the country. I wouldn’t live anywhere near a largely black neighborhood (I did at one point). This doesn’t make me a racist; it makes me a realist.

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com


Avatar for afhack73 Avatar for Patriot Avatar for system