As A Teenager, O.J. Simpson’s Trial Was Crash Course on Race Relations in America

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OJ Simpson's trial protest

The news of the death of O.J. Simpson from cancer really hit me in a way that I didn’t expect. 

I didn’t know the man personally–but I knew the man.  A lot of us who witnessed the events of 1994-1995 feel that.

I am a Gen Xer and was just 16-years-old when Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered.  I didn’t know much about O.J. Simpson before that time. The fact that he was a football star was lost on me as a teenager. My introduction to O.J. Simpson was an actor in movies like the Naked Gun series.

And then the murders happened and like many teenagers living in households and communities with opinionated adults we learned quickly how to navigate conversations about race and the criminal justice system.

My recollection and experiences as it relates to the murder, the police chase and O.J. Simpson’s trial are all seen through the lens of a teenager who–outside of listening to Eazy E, Ice Cube and NWA– knew very little about and had no experience with Black people and the criminal justice system.

But in 1994–like many other kids– I got a crash course and saw firsthand the stark divide in public opinion along racial lines. 

O.J. Simpson’s Trial in Black & White

I remember there being a lot of grumblings about O.J. not really been a part of the Black community. A lot of folks didn’t like that he married a white woman and moved to the white community. But at the same time, a lot of Black people still saw something of themselves in O.J.  He represented decades and decades of innocent Black people who were the victims of overzealous district attorneys who were aiding the abetting racist police in convicting Black people for crimes they hadn’t committed. 

Yes, he golfed, was rich and had married a white woman, but one step out of line–and the step being the murders of Nicole and Ron–and he quickly became a n—er to white people.

O.J. Simpson's trial

For Black people, the collective consensus was that if O.J. beat his case–we all beat the case.  A lot was riding on that trial.  So much so, that moments leading up the verdict being read had us all frozen and glued to our televisions.  I remember when the moment came, the sound of everyone running outside and celebrating in the streets singing, “We won, we won!”

O.J. Simpson's trial

O.J. Simpson’s trial was seen as a symbol of systemic racism and a rare instance of a Black man achieving a measure of justice within a system that often seemed stacked against him.  Simpson’s acquittal was seen as a victory against a history of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

It was as if, O.J. represented every Black man unjustly stopped by the police, lied on by the police, had evidence planted on them by the police in an incredibly racist criminal justice system.

O.J. Simpson's trial

Across town, many white Americans viewed Simpson’s trial through a much different lens, seeing it as a case of a wealthy celebrity using his fame and resources to evade accountability for a brutal crime. The racial polarization of public opinion underscored the deep-seated divisions and differing perspectives on race, privilege, and the legal system in America.

O.J. Simpson’s Trial Changed Everything

As an adult, I can look back now and reflect on the trial of O.J. Simpson not simply being about a celebrity facing justice or a miscarriage of justice – it spotlighted deep-rooted issues within our criminal justice system and forced us to face uncomfortable truths about how race influences perceptions of guilt and innocence.  

The trial raised important questions about the role of race, class, and privilege in the legal system, prompting broader discussions about social inequality.  The media frenzy around it brought to light disparities in treatment based on race. It sparked conversations, some hopeful, a lot contentious, about fairness and equality in the eyes of the law.

Before George Floyd’s Murder, There Was O.J. Simpson’s Trial

Younger generations may not have experienced the O.J. Simpson trial firsthand, but if they look closely can see its impact on race in America reverberate through our culture and society today helping to influence movements including Black Lives Matters.

For example, in 2020, when the world witnessed the horrific murder of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer, similar to the prosecution of Simpson, Floyd’s death became a rallying cry against systemic racism and police brutality that was heard in every part of America and again challenged us to have difficult conversations about race.

The media coverage that followed amplified voices demanding change, shining a glaring spotlight on the injustices faced by Black communities at the hands of law enforcement.

Both events, decades apart, acted as wake-up calls, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about race and justice in America. They ignited movements, spurred activism, and pushed us to reckon with the realities of systemic bias.

Still Polarizing Even in Death

Today, I imagine that like in life, in death, O.J. Simpson remains a polarizing figure with some mourning his death while others celebrate.

Innocent or guilty–perhaps we can agree that Simpson continues to serve as a catalyst for us to continue to talk about the uncomfortableness of race, justice, and power in America.

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