1994 NBA Finals, Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, Dialogue on Race, Economic Inequality, Game 5, Houston Rockets, Internalized Racism, Men's Retreat, New York Knicks, Newsweek, Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J. Simpson, OJ Simpson, Pharrell Williams, Race Riots, Racial Stereotypes, Racial Stigma, Racism, Ron Goldman, Time Magazine, Trial, White Bronco
Today’s the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, still officially-allegedly murdered by the once great NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson. In five days, it’ll be twenty years since the bizarre police chase of Simpson in a white Ford Bronco with his friend Al Cowlings on I-405 in the Los Angeles area. In the process, he took all of us — the media, the sports world, and anyone who cared about race and justice — on a ride that folks are still talking about two decades later. It had an impact on me in terms of how I saw Blacks and Whites and race. I shouldn’t have been, but I was mildly surprised that so many would become so emotionally caught up in a double-homicide case involving what at one time was one of the world’s most recognizable faces.
That week twenty years ago was my absolute commitment to two events. The NBA Finals between my New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. And a church retreat for the male members (nearly 100 of us, almost all Black — talk about irony!) of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh. It was to be a week of watching my Knicks play at home and three days in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania at a retreat lodge, in a spirit of learning how to be godly men and of adult male bonding. The first full day of the retreat was June 17. After a day of workshops, prayer, praise, and singing (at least for me and the rest of the men’s choir), we all piled into the rec room to watch Game 5 of the Final. Only to see an overhead shot of a slow-moving white Bronco being trailed by an escort of L.A.’s finest instead of Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Doc Rivers, Charles Oakley, and the rest of the cast of characters from my favorite team.
The Knicks won, which was great, but I barely saw the game. They were up 3-2, but would lose the last two games in the next six days in Houston, turning Choke City into Clutch City overnight. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about when it first happen. I hoped that the police wouldn’t shoot Simpson before he had a chance to go to trial. The L.A. riots were just two years before. I feared that the issue of race would be front and center, with Simpson’s issues with his now dead White ex-wife.
What I saw within ten days of the Bronco chase was an artificially darkened Simpson on the cover of Time. I watched as the media condemned Simpson well before the trial. As Blacks were becoming angrier about the coverage. As Whites grew more confident about Simpson being convicted, losing his fortune and fame, and possibly getting the death penalty (or at least, life imprisonment). It was amazing how quickly folks took sides on the issue. My mother proclaimed that O.J. was innocent long before the prosecution botched the trial. Some of my grad school colleagues — all White, mind you — made all kinds of assumptions about where I stood on O.J. Simpson. They didn’t like the fact that I was willing to wait until the trial to make up my mind.
Many have benefitted from the O.J. Simpson effect over the last twenty years. From lawyers to journalists, TV stations and authors, many have reaped benefits and have built careers from the O.J. Simpson trial and verdict. Greta Van Susteren, Dan Abrams, Nancy Grace, Court TV (now TruTV), the late Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro, among so many others. Even Mark Fuhrman got a book and a radio talk show (at least for a while) out of the trial. One could argue that Kim Kardashian, daughter of Simpson defense “Dream Team” lawyer Robert Kardashian, has benefited, albeit indirectly (it’s not as if her father’s a regular on her family’s reality shows, right?).
Conservative media in general received the greatest indirect residuals of all from the murders, trial, and acquittal involving Simpson. The events between June 12, ’94 and October 3, ’95 helped intensify an atmosphere of conservatism, a sense that our nation was out of control. With the acquittal, it made sense to millions for cable and talk radio to increase its coverage of news, especially news with a more “fair and balanced” slant.
Obviously Simpson hasn’t benefited. Our national dialogue on race hasn’t improved, either. Whites still seemingly want Blacks to be stereotypes and to shut up while entertaining them with our lives and our deaths. Some Black elites still make a point of divorcing themselves from other Blacks and from the world that’s race in America, Pharrell Williams most recently so. And with rapidly increasing economic inequality, it’s a wonder that thousands of Whites haven’t come in to Black and Latino neighborhoods to burn down businesses and beat up and lynch those of us unlucky to encounter their mobs, like they typically did this time a century ago.
All because of the multitude of examples of individual Black success, and occasions of Black-on-White (and especially blond)-woman-violence. Things change, but the cancer that is Whiteness and race remain the same, “a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say.