So News Corp. has cancelled O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It” and the companion television specials. While I respect the Brown and Goldman families’ desire not to see the tragedies they suffered trotted out as entertainment, there is a part of me that wishes we had gotten to experience Mr. Simpson’s confession at first hand. I, for one, would have felt a certain sense of closure.
It was O.J., after all, who made me un-P.C.
Before O.J., I was not a particularly political person. The response to his case among many black people was my first encounter with a tacit orthodoxy: that if there is a conflict between facts and reminding America of racism, then the facts must be treated as beside the point.
Throughout 1995, we all watched the prosecution present a blindingly clear case for murder. Footprints in blood from a rare pair of shoes Mr. Simpson denied wearing only to have people dig up photos of him in them. A mysterious gash on his left hand,a mysterious trail of blood to the left of the footprints. Blood in the Bronco. When told that his wife had been murdered, Mr. Simpson never asked about his children. And on and on.
And yet I gradually realized that the black people refusing to admit that Mr.Simpson could have been guilty were not just scattered cranks, but were legions of perfectly sane people, often with advanced degrees. These were people I knew.
I will never forget the shock of seeing so many people I would never have suspected of being able to think in this way constructing elaborate scenarios as to how blood could have been planted here or there, or insisting that Mark Fuhrman’s comfort with the N-word justified assuming that the Los Angeles Police Department had been out to “get”Mr.Simpson despite having coddled him for years.In other words,pretending that Mr. Simpson was innocent was normal.
The attorney for Ronald Goldman in the civil trial, Daniel Petrocelli, has recalled that black and white people on a mock jury similarly considered Mr. Simpson guilty when they viewed a film of Mr. Simpson’s obviously coached plea of innocence — “I Want to Tell You” — but then blacks exonerated him when listening to white lawyers arguing for his guilt. Black people couldn’t pretend to believe Mr. Simpson when the man himself, as an individual, denied his guilt. For too many black people, the Simpson case wasn’t about the truth.It was about settling old scores — or it was idle catharsis, otherwise known as a cheap thrill.
I know — the Los Angeles Police Department had given the black community ample reason to resent them in decades past, and I mean in countless episodes much less subject to alternate interpretation than the Rodney King incident. Those interested might look up, say, the Ronald Stokes killing of 1962. But there was no graceful room for vigilante justice when it came to a case as plain as Mr. Simpson’s. Frankly, the fashion for treating him as a victim made black America look dumb.
Okay, there was the shrunken glove and another hair or two slightly out of place. But no cute rhymes about fitting and acquitting would have held any sway over black juries if Joe Namath had been married to a black woman and had killed her. Suddenly all would have understood the simple fact that,as Vincent Bugliosi pointed out in his masterful book about the case, “Outrage,” an argument is not like a chain in which one weak link renders it useless, but it is like a rope, in which a few loose fibers leave it intact.
Of course, as the pile of evidence reached a certain empyrean height, there were those who could not help starting to feel a little queasy mouthing the established lines. Enter, then, a new line that became common,“I’m tired of the whole thing.” Interesting, though, how the same kinds of people never said that about Tawana Brawley, and are unlikely to say it now about George Allen or, most recently, about Michael “Kramer” Richards’s stand-up routine.
The O.J. show was, in the end, all about the idea that for black people, there is something we must “get”: that the tragedies of our past mean that standards for us are different in the present. This, then, is why we exempt ourselves from serious competition (bravo to Michigan voters, by the way). This was why black linguists, just as the civil trial was winding down, as it happens, were telling interviewers that Black English is an African language. This is why black rappers’ murder-happy, misogynistic lyrics are celebrated as progressive discourse. Hence Howard University students cheering at the exoneration of a murderer despite his avowed position on his dating preferences being “I don’t shovel coal.”
We are to “get” that for black people, judgment must always be an in-group affair, filtered through the maternal. We are not to be subjected to public standards of evaluation. We are poster children. That is, eternally children.
Well, I didn’t “get” it then and I don’t now. It makes me, as they say, wanna holler.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you wake up one day with a second career.
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