“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”: What Simpson’s life shows about transcending race and being trapped by it

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”: What Simpson’s life shows about transcending race and being trapped by it

It’s still unclear when – or if – O.J. Simpson actually said the words that rapper Jay-Z attributed to him in his 2017 Grammy-nominated song “The Story of O.J.”

But the words stuck and came to symbolize the complicated relationship the Black community had with Simpson, who died on April 11, 2024, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Jay-Z wrote.

Indeed, O.J. did transcend race. He had the life of the rich and famous that many Black and white people could only dream of. In the early 1990s, the former professional football player and Hollywood actor was earning US$55,000 per month and had a net worth of nearly $11 million, according to court records.

But it all came crashing down on June 12, 1994, after the vicious killing of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was charged in both murders and during the trial became the epitome of Black, male toxicity. Though acquitted – in large part because of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist history of police brutality – his trial exposed the racial divisions within America and the deep-seated resentment that many Black people had for the U.S. criminal justice system.

As a scholar of ethnic studies, I followed the case of O.J. Simpson as it unfolded and understood the jubilation that many Black people felt after his acquittal. I also understood that jubilation was more about the fairness of the criminal justice system than it ever was about O.J.

The rise of a Black media star

During the early 1960s, Orenthal James Simpson was a cultural hero for millions of Black boys and girls who saw him dominate college football as a star running back for the University of Southern California. He led the team to a national championship in 1968 and earned a Heisman Trophy, the sport’s highest award.

A Black man stands next to a white woman as they pose for a photograph.

O.J. Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson attend a party in New York City in 1993. Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Simpson went on to have a spectacular professional football career before turning his star power to Hollywood movies and commercials, the most memorable of which saw him running through an airports to get a Hertz rental car.

Tragic fall

All of that stardom made Simpson’s arrest on June 17, 1994, even more bizarre.

I recall watching the slow-moving chase of the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson fled, followed by dozens of police cars on a Los Angeles highway. Inside the Bronco, Simpson held a gun to his head.

Given his behavior, Simpson appeared to be guilty in the court of public opinion. But during the trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to shift the focus of the case away from Simpson’s erratic behavior and to the racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A photograph of a Black man taken by the Los Angeles police.

O.J. Simpson following his arrest in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994. Kypros/Getty Images

In what was dubbed by media analysts “the trial of the century,” Cochran was able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury after he detailed the numerous forensic mistakes that Los Angeles police made in handling evidence in the case. Cochran’s defense ended with Simpson trying on a pair of gloves that prosecutors claimed were used in the murders.

“If they don’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury.

They didn’t fit.

The Simpson trial came at a time when police brutality in Los Angeles had become the subject of national media attention after the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. A year later, on April 29, 1992, a jury found the four officers not guilty, and that verdict triggered days of riots in Los Angeles.

In my view, this backdrop was partly the reason why Black people saw Simpson as yet another Black man falsely charged with – and often lynched for – a crime involving a white woman.

No longer a symbol of the American dream, O.J. became the black face of domestic violence and a tragic lesson on the flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Rodney Coates, Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Miami University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.