For the first post in our Race and Crime series, Shu Chee provides a short commentary and personal afterthought on Walter L. Hixson’s Black and White: The O. J. Simpson Case (1995) found in Annette Gordon-Reed’s ‘Race on Trial’.
In Harper’s well-acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird, Tom was treated as a second-class citizen and received an unfair trial after being accused of raping a white woman. Despite significant evidence proving his innocence, he was convicted, based largely on his skin colour. Although it is an overstatement to say that Tom is the fictional equivalent of the average, working-class African American defendant, it is undeniable that some institutionalised racism and disparities in sentencing do exist in real life.
Historically, African Americans have been on the receiving end of the U.S. criminal justice system and have been portrayed as dangerous and violent by the law enforcers and the media. Recent literature has revealed evidence of racial disparities in trials and sentencing, and opinion polls show that the ‘lighter skin, lighter sentence’ sentiment remains strong among BMEs in U.S today.
But what if the African American defendant was a winner of the prestigious Heisman Trophy, an Olympic torch bearer and a brilliant business person? Not only would this make the defendant an atypical offender, their racial status, fame and wealth all make his or her trial highly sensational and would likely receive more intense media coverage. In Black and White: The O. J. Simpson Case (1995), Hixson gives a detailed timeline of the events leading to Simpson’s trial, and further explores the various incriminating evidence that blatantly pointed towards Simpson as the murderer. Yet unlike Tom who died as a mockingbird, for Hixson, Simpson became the mockingbird (by verdict) who almost died at the hands of manipulative, discriminatory law enforcers.
Unlike the average African American defendant, Simpson was a celebrity who could afford to hire a ‘Dream Team’ ensemble of lawyers who, according to Hixson, took full advantage of the racial dynamics in 1990s America. For years before the Simpson case, the unwarranted victimisation of African Americans by the system had already been brought to light by politicians and the media. From the DWI (driving while intoxicated) vs DWB (driving while Black) debates to disproportionate incarceration rates and sentence durations of BMEs, the seeds of resentment had long been planted. This, according to Hixson, allowed the so-called legal ‘Dream Team’ to fabricate conspiracy theories that ‘the racist cops had been out to frame an innocent man, a role model for African Americans’.
Have you ever addressed any black person as n*gger or spoken about black persons as n*ggers in the past ten years?
– ‘Dream Team’ to LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman during the Simpson trial
However, the main objective of this commentary is not to determine whether Simpson was ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. Rather, it is to consider the backlash of racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system if Simpson was acquitted. If Simpson was found not guilty of the murders, despite strong evidence to suggest that he committed them, this meant that it was these very disparities – which led to loss of police credibility and alienation of African Americans – that failed to bring justice to the two tragically murdered victims. Ironically then, it was again the same disparities that led to the disparity in verdict and sentencing in the Simpson case (read: a white defendant facing an overwhelming evidence of his guilt would be found guilty otherwise). Deviating from the usual depiction of BME victimisation in trials and sentencing, Simpson won his case by ‘playing the race card’ in a completely different way, as Hixson discusses.
Nevertheless, as Hixson identifies, the decision of the African American juries and reaction of the community were understandable; specifically, ‘why weren’t those whites who protested the outcome of the Simpson case upset that African Americans suffered daily injustices under the law?’ This was simply a case of the African Americans siding with ‘one of their own’ against a system that had constantly repressed people of colour. Less simply put however, was the fact that the Simpson case was not so much of a murder case than ‘a national referendum on race and power relationships in the United States’.
More than two decades have passed since the Simpson case and one can’t help but wonder if any significant progress has been made within the U.S. system. Would the same verdict be returned if it had happened in the current U.S. society, with current policing methods and social media technologies? #FreeOJ? Maybe. #BlackLivesMatter? Very possibly.
More insights on race and racial hierarchies and how they affect criminal justice outcomes can be found in Annette Gordon-Reed’s Race on Trial, which includes a compilation of 12 key cases that provide a perspective lens on American cultural history and justice system