To think that it’s only been two decades since the overhyped “Trial of the Century” came to a close with a clerk’s initial mispronunciation of Orenthal James Simpson’s first name. And of course, with O.J. Simpson’s acquittal. It’s amazing to think 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. But it did happen, all of it in a sixteen-month span, and the reaction was as predictable as the sunrise, racial profiling, and police harassment.
During the Ford Bronco chase on I-5 on Friday, June 17 (during my Knicks’ Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets), 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.
I was naive, thinking that our world of ’94 would simply attempt to determine if Simpson was guilty or innocent. Instead what I saw within ten days of the Bronco chase was an artificially darkened Simpson on the cover of Time. I saw Blacks who became angrier about the coverage, even 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). My Mom 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. They didn’t like the fact that I was willing to wait until the trial to make up my mind.
When the verdict came down on Tuesday, October 3, 1995, it was stunning to watch ecstatic Blacks and angry, dejected Whites react to the “Not Guilty” verdict. And not just on TV, although it was obvious newsrooms were actively looking for a racial divide. My friend James (who’s Black, by the way) from my Pitt grad school days spent his lunch break in my apartment gritting his teeth in anger as the verdict was read. I was more shocked than anything else. I smiled, but it was one of bewilderment observing the reactions, as if we all had some deeply personal stake in the trial and verdict.
That smile disappeared as I went through my day editing and printing out chapter drafts of my dissertation. That was my real focus, not the soap opera enveloping the rest of the country. Late that afternoon, I went to Carnegie Mellon to drop off a draft of a couple of those chapters for my thesis advisor Joe Trotter. Carl, a colleague of mine, one who I had called a friend up to this point, immediately started in on me about the verdict when I reached the grad student cubicles in the History Department. He kept literally spewing the media’s line about an all-Black jury, about jury nullification, about Johnnie Cochran. Carl was in a rage, belligerent, possibly drunk, and seemingly ready to throw down. Seriously, aside from showing up to drop off dissertation chapters, what did I do?
I politely pointed out that the jury was mostly, but not all Black (at least three members were White or Latino), and that the prosecution led by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden left the door wide open for an acquittal. Carl assumed wrongly that I wanted O.J. free regardless of his “obvious guilt.” I asked my colleague what else could the jury do, given the compelling defense put together by the late Johnnie Cochran, the mistakes with forensics, with the glove, with putting Mark Fuhrman on the stand? I said that “I don’t represent all thirty million African Americans in this country,” and that “our conversation is over.”
That reminded me of how irrational supposedly rational, forward-thinking Whites often are on race matters. They either ignore, deny, or when compelled by some betrayal or injustice, badger, threaten and retaliate in response. Carl that day was no exception. I found that incident unsettling because this supposed friend was one of the few folks at Carnegie Mellon who had earned my trust. It reminded me if I were to ever date or marry someone White (not exactly my plan), there would be hell to pay. I had a grand total of three conversations with Carl after that between October 3, 1995 and August 6, 1999, the latter the week before I left Pittsburgh to live in suburban DC/Maryland.
I’m sure that I wasn’t the only Black person who had to confront Whiteness in all of its angry, hurt and juvenile forms in those first two weeks of October ’95. I’m equally sure that if the O.J. Simpson trial’s verdict occurred in 2015, Carl and his like-minded ilk would’ve set off race riots the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since Detroit in 1943, Tulsa in 1921, and Chicago in 1919. You know, the kind where Whites go into segregated Black communities and rape, kill, steal and destroy as much as they can. To me, Carl just represented the White privilege and resentment of millions, smoldering yet ready to erupt at a moment’s notice. Not that many haven’t benefited from the O.J. Simpson effect in the years since.
Carl has a professorship somewhere in New York these days, and we are professional colleagues who maybe exchange an email one or twice a decade now. I’m sure, though, that he avoids the topic of race in US history like most would want to avoid catching Ebola. Especially given his reaction to one jury verdict twenty years ago.