No More Whining

Frank Lentricchia on the O.J. Simpson affair

‘The Los Angeles Police Department has framed a guilty man.’ Among the jokes spawned by the trials of O.J. Simpson, that one may tell the most truth.

The man in question had been a famous athlete who became – thanks to a delightful, long-running TV commercial – white America’s black teddy bear. How cuddly he was, how handsome and rich. He flashed a smile of infinite reassurance; spoke standard American English with a standard American accent. The real O.J. Simpson, who had grown up in poverty, embodied one of America’s favourite stories about itself.

Before his first trial began, before a shred of evidence had been formally presented, well-dressed white feminists in Los Angeles called for the death penalty. The teddy bear had changed into a big black male, with a big knife, who had virtually decapitated a beautiful blonde with whom he’d slept, and who, according to her best friend, had a yen for black men, even as Simpson himself gravitated towards blondes. And so our lovable cross-over black disappeared, almost overnight, and into his place stepped a fearsome mythical figure embodying a long-standing American anxiety.

A few hours after the criminal trial concluded, with a verdict of not guilty, white feminists marched in protest in Simpson’s affluent neighbourhood. They protested in the streets of Manhattan. On a freeway overpass in Los Angeles, a message appeared: ‘The nigger did it.’ A few days later, the polls told us that a huge majority of white Americans believed that Simpson had committed a double murder. Those same polls told us that a huge majority of black Americans thought otherwise. The polls in fact told us what we had suspected all along about the racially divided reception of this case. And now that Simpson has been found liable for two ‘wrongful deaths’ in the civil trial ($33 million of liability), the polls have not changed much. The one black juror in that civil trial, an alternate, said she wasn’t convinced of his liability; the evidence seemed quite shaky to her. A white juror, also a woman, was quoted as saying that the decision to find Simpson liable was the easiest decision she’d made in her entire life. In the meanwhile, males all over America, black and white, take note that Simpson has been awarded custody of the two children he fathered with the murdered blonde, and that the judge who awarded custody to him was a white female. Males take note, and they sigh, a little out of relief.

Enter the high-toned weekly magazines of liberal and conservative persuasion, working overtime to produce an interpretation that would negate the obvious: that in the self-consciously multicultural Republic, black-white tensions have decisive consequences for the meting out of justice. Blacks have always known what whites now wish to forget in their desire to enjoin us all to transcend race in the interests of colourblind justice: that justice, in America, has never been colour-blind. (Nor has it been immune, of course, to the blandishments of big money: Simpson had big money.) Since the Sixties, the law itself has indeed become colour-blind, but Americans who administer justice (black and white) have not.

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