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.

The mostly black jury that acquitted Simpson was virtually all female. They were not fashionably coiffed or dressed, as was the lead, white female prosecutor. They did not show signs of having regularly worked out at a health club, as did the lead, white female prosecutor. When interviewed after the trial, these working-class black women spoke without a trace of stridency or emotion, as if they had rendered an objective judgment. They were in no sense jubilant in victory. (At the colleges, on the other hand, black students cheered the verdict while their white classmates stood watching the news in vivid shock.) These women were matter-of-fact: convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defence had blown large holes in the prosecution’s case. The gloves, presumably worn by the killer in the very act, did not fit Simpson, not by a long shot. These women believed, as the defence had argued, that the Los Angeles Police Department had tampered with evidence, had (perhaps inadvertently) contaminated evidence, and had entered Simpson’s home before it had the legal right to do so.

In other words, the defence argued in countless ways for what blacks already knew by harsh experience: that it is lucky to be white in America. It has been documented over and over that police encounters with blacks, especially black men, are routinely demeaning, prejudicial and often physically brutal. The lead defence attorney had chanted his refrain: ‘If the gloves do not fit, you must acquit.’ They acquitted. The prosecution and its supporters howled in outrage that the defence had ‘played the race card’.

But as even white liberals will agree, race in America has long had symbolic as well as empirical reality. Justice, nevertheless, as we all agree, should be colour-blind. The editors of the New Republic believe that in the civil trial justice was in fact done. In an exceptionally fatuous gesture, they explained that justice was done because new and more complete evidence was presented by attorneys who were more skilful than their prosecutorial counterparts in the criminal trial. The editors opine that had the first (virtually) all-black jury heard all the evidence, it would have agreed with the (virtually) all-white jury of the civil trial. I keep remembering that an alternate juror in the civil trial, the lone black woman, disagreed with her white colleagues, politely and absolutely. The editors of the New Republic conclude (operatically) that unless we transcend our tribal differences, ‘we live without meaning and without mercy.’ That statement is not only false, but also in its reference to blacks (one of the ‘tribes’), it represents, at this moment in American history, a sign of unintended but merciless indifference to black experience: a kind of racism.

What the editors of the New Republic are in effect saying to blacks is: yes, you have been historically dehumanised by whites in America; yes, extra-legal racism continues to be a widespread and humiliating experience for you, even though the laws have changed; yes, the wounds of racism have not yet been healed; yes, you are often done down by a justice system that depends on the goodwill of white policemen. Nevertheless, we now say to you, and to whites as well: forget, and render colour-blind justice. Civilised people do not act or judge in a rage. Put your rage aside, justified as it is, and render the justice that only cool reason can render. Do this or we lose our common humanity. But why was it that the black jurors in the criminal trial seemed by all accounts to be thoughtful? And who is to say that it wasn’t their rationality that led them to their judgment? Shall we guess (this is reasonable, too) that a reservoir of historical rage subtly, or not so subtly, did undergird their collective reason? Did they hide their anger before the cameras? We will never know, of course, but if it could be demonstrated that they did act out of historical agony and anger, my response would be: it’s about time that payback was delivered. Another kind of justice has been done. Another kind, also human.

The oppressed should not have to feel that their rage is inappropriate. To tell blacks that it should be set aside (how does one, in the grip of rage, do that?); to imply that such feelings are shameful, uncivilised and divisive; to ask black people, once again, to turn the other cheek, is to tell them, in so far as they feel rage, that they thereby threaten a decent society, when, in fact, it is just that, the lack of decency, that triggers the rage. The traditional good man says that rage cannot bring decency into the world. But in America, a rageful response to racism, in the Simpson criminal trial, may have been a step in the right direction. Let us pray.

There are movements afoot in America, in the wake of the first Simpson trial, to reform the jury system. Perhaps magazine intellectuals will remember before jumping on the bandwagon that all-black juries in Washington DC have routinely found numerous – real – black defendants guilty of all sorts of crimes. Ditto for all-white juries and white defendants. In the Simpson case, however, the true defendant was surely unreal: he was a symbol, and his criminal case was a spectacular historical marker of poetic justice. In the symbolic case, the defendant represented the black victims of American history – no matter that the actual O.J. Simpson was badly cast in the victim’s role. It was white America’s historical treatment of blacks that was on trial: that was the case before the jury, which by virtue of its extreme racial imbalance was uniquely equipped to try it and render the kind of justice that no racially representative jury could have rendered. The prosecution ignored the symbolic case, the defence did not, and proceeded to try it, perhaps even knowing that racial injustice played no significant role in the actual Simpson matter. The prosecution never had a chance, nor should it have had a chance, because the prosecution was a symbolic party to real historical crimes.

What white America needs to do now, with no more whining and moaning, is to swallow what seems to it to be a palpably bad verdict. White America has long needed to face something: a criminal case in which it seems ridiculously obvious that a black man has committed some horrific crime, and a mostly black jury lets him go. For centuries, in America, blacks have had to swallow the counterpart of that disgusting meal. I hold the unreasonable view that white America needs the experience, now and then, of having ‘injustice’ shoved down its throat, by blacks, in a case of exceptional notoriety, and in the name of the justice system itself. And then we’ll try to recall, during this experience of force-feeding, the fires, the lynchings, the castrations and, at the very least, those white juries that released the white killer of the civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, though his fingerprints were found all over the murder weapon, though he bragged of what he had done and the white juries were told of his bragging.

When the white woman who led the Simpson prosecution decided to ignore the advice of jury consultants, who’d told her that blacks (including black women) were more likely to acquit than whites, she, along with post-trial lamenters, was choosing to forget. When she decided that she’d be safe by seating a mostly female jury, because she believed (probably correctly) that this was a gender crime, she played the gender card. And she lost. The issue of male domestic violence may be the ‘real’ story here, but the jury were reading another story, through the lens of which it was quite easy to see holes in the prosecution’s case. Race trumped gender – resoundingly.

The New Yorker brings us the news that the Simpson verdict (the first one) was ‘bad’; worse, that it ‘lacked popular legitimacy’. The first Simpson verdict had enormous legitimacy among blacks: they declared it ‘good’. If ‘popular’ refers, in the New Yorker mind, to the country as a whole, then it must be said that there is no such thing as the country as a whole. There is no somehow unified populace, at this time, that could legitimate anything. Unfortunately, the civil trial verdict guarantees that white America has got some satisfaction after black America got its in the criminal trial. I suspect that the civil trial jury dealt more scrupulously with just the facts put before it: facts that point powerfully to Simpson’s guilt, facts coldly severed from the history of race relations. Reasonable people will say that that is what we are supposed to do. It would have been better, for the education of whites, had white America swallowed it twice.

The editors of the New Republic cite the view of a black leader, Benjamin Chavis, that there is no ‘one America’. There are several (white, black, brown, yellow) and ‘they are all separate and unequal.’ The editors characterise that view as representative of an ‘ugly and illiberal view loose in the land’. But Chavis’s view is a banally accurate description of our social state of affairs. I don’t know what it would take for a white person truly to bond with the humanity of a black person, but I suspect that a common experience of searing injustice might help. Therefore, I hope that whites in America will now recollect in tranquillity their rage on hearing the first Simpson verdict.