O.J. Simpson and America's Recurrent Racial Amnesia

The death of O.J. Simpson last week provides an occasion for reflecting on the decade in which his murder trial not only occurred but which in some ways it defined. I'll focus today's essay on the ways in which the Simpson case reflects a larger pattern of American racial amnesia.

The irony of Simpson's legal team "playing the race card" was not lost on many commentators. O.J. Simpson was not unique in his ability to appeal to white Americans. Other Black athletes achieved similar levels of acceptance. But O.J. was among the most successful at it. If Mohammed Ali was the sports version of Malcolm X of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Juice was (what we now pretend was) the period's MLK Jr. It is difficult to think of any Black public figure of the time who was as beloved and accepted by white Americans. Bill Cosby (whose predatory behavior would not be widely known for decades) also makes the cut, but it is a very short list.

Yet to see the use of race by Simpson's legal team as entirely cynical or opportunistic is to miss the larger context of the trial and the 1990s. To much of Black America, once O.J. became the prime suspect in a murder case, the notion that he would be protected from the possibility of police misconduct by his celebrity status was wildly implausible. Rather, he would be seen as any other Black suspect: presumed guilty. That view was a product of centuries of American racism but also what were then very recent events.

Before Simpson's case, the decade's racial politics were defined by the brutal police beating of Rodney King, the shocking acquittal of the perpetrators, and the likewise shocking riots that ensued in Los Angeles. The murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman was committed just over two years after the King verdict. Why was anyone surprised that a legal strategy portraying Los Angeles police officers as racially biased was successful?

Or consider another early 1990s precursor to the Simpson trial. Sandwiched between the police beating of King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the police who beat him was the explosive Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, who cowed eleven Democratic Senators into joining all but two Republicans to vote to confirm him by depicting the Judiciary Committee's attention to Anita Hill's allegations as a "high-tech lynching." Because Hill and Thomas are both Black, one might have thought that her highly credible allegations of grossly inappropriate sexual comments could not plausibly be compared to the kinds of extrajudicial responses to unjust and racist accusations that characterized America's long history of lynchings, but so deep is the vein of racial pain that Thomas and his Bush I administration handlers had little difficulty turning that pain to their advantage. Is it any wonder then that Simpson and his legal team were able to misdirect racial suspicion in a case involving white victims?

The Simpson case was a marker of a kind of recurrent amnesia. White Americans embraced O.J. in the 1970s and 1980s, so we deluded ourselves that we were living in a post-racial society. Then the King and Simpson cases occurred, revealing that deep racial divides persisted.

Nor did such divisions or our tendency towards amnesia end with the 1990s.

In 2008, America elected its first Black President and re-elected him four years later. Finally, pundits declared, we are in a post-racial society. We were not. In the very next Presidential election, the country chose (through our archaic system) an openly racist Donald Trump, once again revealing the persistence of not merely racial divisions but systemic racism.

In 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, millions of white Americans embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. This time felt different because now the key event was a recognition of the persistence of racism and a seeming commitment to dismantle it. It wasn't different. The backlash ensued quickly, with politicians attacking whatever they could label as critical race theory and enacting laws preventing teachers from providing instruction that could lead white schoolchildren to feel uncomfortable about our racial history. If America survives as a constitutional democracy, we will eventually experience yet another trauma that once again reminds us of our nation's unexpurgated original sin.

None of this is to say that we have made no progress. Laws, attitudes, and demographics have changed--in fits and starts, with lots of backsliding, but mostly for the better. It is to say that much still needs to be done.

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Last week also brought a reminder of another 1990s trauma. It was the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide--which is both a cautionary tale and a source of hope. It's a cautionary tale because in pre-genocide Rwanda, distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi were frequently overlooked and often arbitrary; yet, as in other sites of genocide (including the more or less simultaneous carnage in the former Yugoslavia), people who had lived peacefully with their neighbors could be activated into the most brutal form of tribalism with only the slightest provocation.

Rwanda today is nonetheless a source of hope for the possibility of reconciliation, even for people who literally murdered their neighbors' families. Over the last three decades, Rwanda has made national reconciliation the country's number one priority--with what appears to be considerable success. As stories from Rwanda testify, this is not a project of forgetting. I cannot imagine that anyone has forgotten what they did or had done to them. It is, at least in part, a project of forgiving.

For there to be forgiveness requires some acknowledgment of guilt. What that would mean in America is not entirely clear. If we are to achieve a post-racial society (assuming such a thing is possible and desirable), at a minimum we will first need to remember that we are still a long way from such a goal.