Monday, April 15, 2024

The Simpson Verdict Was a Manifestation of Inequity



On Friday's Real Time with Bill Maher, the conversation eventually was steered (abruptly) to the death of Orenthal J. Simpson. The host made a few remarks, a couple of them dangerously misleading, reflecting conventional wisdom..

Bill Maher remarks (at 41:30 of the video, if it were still available) 

I think what it was, I think black folks knew very well that he did it and I don't blame them one bit for cheering him on. I mean, when you're on the wrong end of the justice system- first of all, as they have been, when they finally got one, even though he was not exactly the best recipient of that.

For what it's worth, poll(s) at the time indicated that most blacks believed Simpson was innocent. Through the years, more blacks (as most whites) came to realize that the Hall of Famer was guilty as charged. More whites did so, also, though both at the time of the trial and years later, more whites than blacks believed Simpson committed the two murders.

The unchallenged belief that blacks "got one" is inaccurate. And Maher was correct that Simpson was not "the best recipient" of the mercy extended, not only because he was guilty but also because he strove to represent himself as not black. "I'm not black, I'm O.J." he would famously assert.

Maher continued

I mean, of course, when we saw that split screen of white people going (mock horror expressed) "oh, my God, oh my God, justice has not been done" and black people screaming in joy- totally understandable. You can't have two completely different histories in American and then expect people to have same reaction to that.

Understandable, yes, the way it's understandable that (some) individuals devoted to Donald Trump believe that the insurrection/riot of 1/6/21 was an inside job, a set-up by the FBI to entrap patriotic Americans so they could be tossed into jail.  By all indications, the protesters acted on their own, resisted by law enforcement officers who were overwhelmed by the numbers and anger of the crowd.

Similarly, the evidence against Simpson was so overwhelming that rational dissenters could have realized they were exposing themselves as ignorant by expressing their joyful exuberance at the verdict. Instead, this should go down (but won't) as the beginning of the "all exuberant emotion is good, especially if it will be filmed" movement in society.

Conceding that the defendant was in fact culpable, Maher added "It was a miscarriage of justice but for white people to be that upset about the one time, the one time a black guy gets off, I thought that was the gross part about it."  Asked by guest panelist Gillian Tett whether "it's different now," Maher said

it is different now. Everything is different now. There's a whole complete different generation that never experienced the kind of racism that the people alive in 1994 who were born in whatever, 1964, 1954, anything like that, they did experience. So would there still be a lot of that reaction? Of course, for understandable reasons.

A moment later, he clarified 

It was payback and on a very larger scale, that's happening in America and will happen for decades to come because the legacy of our despicable racial past doesn't go away in a generation. It takes a very long time. Even people today, younger people, maybe they didn't have anything terrible to happen to them but they're like "yeah, but I know what you did to my grandfather and that was some s_ _ _ and I love him so I'm mad for him. That's not going to go away in my lifetime or yours.

The "understandable reason(s)" that there still would be "a lot of" blacks who now would celebrate a similar outcome in a similar case is perception, not reality. The perception- in the media and among the power elite- seems to be that the common "miscarriage of justice" in the USA is predominantly racial in nature. Maher cites the "two different histories in America" as explaining the discrepancy in reaction of whites and reaction of blacks to the not guilty verdict.

The two different histories extend to treatment by the criminal justice system (and policing, which came into play in the trial, courtesy of the infamous Mark Furman). It was "the one time a black guy gets (got off" because black guys, even less than white guys, have enough money to get off.  The discrepancy in history was not, ultimately, the reason Mr. Simpson was not convicted.

The defendant's "dream team" of attorneys included eleven lawyers, four of them prominent- F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, and Alan Dershowitz. No one- even a white, Christian, land-owning male- is able to hire so much talent without being very, very wealthy. A typical defendant cannot afford to hire even one private attorney and if he is able, she probably is someone not at the top of the legal heap. Although no one who would know for sure is talking, estimates are that Mr. Simpson's defense cost approximately five million dollars.

That is the numeral "5" followed by 7 digits. Without deep pockets- earned by being a phenomenal professional football player, effective celebrity pitchman, and mediocre actor- Simpson would not have been able to sniff an effective defense. And he did so while being black because- in the world of criminal justice as in most of society- black or white is far less important than green.

Thus, it's not only Bill Maher who is mistaken. A professor of Afro-American Studies was quoted by The Washington Post soon after Simpson's death maintaining that racial divisions persist "because we haven't repaired the social fabric in a way that we like to pretend we have because we fall back on race and racism at the drop of a hat or a drop of the glove in this case."

Nonetheless, that's not the only reason racial divisions persist. We also fall back on race and racism because we fail to acknowledge the impact of other, more important factors in some matters.  The jury, including eight blacks and only one white,  did (as Maher noted) believe that the acquittal of OJS constituted a rare victory for a black man in a system beset by racial prejudice. However, the verdict was less an aberration or correction than it was reinforcement of the most significant feature of the criminal justice system;  not white makes right, but money can buy most defendants out of most of the trouble they face. 

The vast majority of whites, and an even greater percentage of blacks, are not wealthy enough to put on an effective defense. And so while we can join Bill Maher in debating whether racism will prevent blacks from getting a fair shake in the future, most will not because they lack the financial resources to put on a fight. Marc Watts, who covered the trial for CNN and is now with the African American Leadership Forum, has stated "many African Americans believed that O.J. Simpson was the revenge verdict. It was the one black people had won in response to some of the ones black people had lost."

No, sorry; black people, few of them in the same universe as Simpson financially, lost rather than the almost universal view that they won one. The video (from seven years ago) below, portrays the trial, as has been typical, as being about race. There is a lesson, as Bill Maher might put it (if he understood), of "happening in America and will happen for decades to come." However, the lesson is less about the importance of race than of the importance of class. 



     





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