Ten Years After O.J. Simpson Trial, Racial, Social Hot Buttons Still Exist
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Los Angeles Daily News, Jun. 12
It was 10 years this month when the bloody and mangled bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found in the walkway of Brown’s Brentwood apartment. It seems as though time has stood still since then. Tongues still wag furiously at the mention of the murders, and the name of the man accused of committing them, O.J. Simpson.
No distant memory, the “Trial of the Century” still lingers in the public consciousness, as do the ugly social problems it exposed and the cultural trends it spawned. The murders of Brown and Goldman heightened racial tensions, as well as public awareness about domestic violence. They stirred rage against the double standard of wealth in the legal system, and elevated celebrity murder cases to media tabloid sensationalism.
Last week NBC took a poll on black and white attitudes toward the Simpson case. The results fell along the same, predictable racial fault lines. Among whites, 87 percent still believed that Simpson committed the murders and evaded justice, while 71 percent of blacks said he was innocent and that the verdict was a just one. That’s pretty typical. Whenever a big-name black athlete or entertainer — most notably Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson — winds up on the legal hot seat, polls are instantly taken to measure what blacks and whites think about their cases. The results are always the same.
A majority of whites say the defendants are guilty as sin, and a majority of blacks say they’re being railroaded because they’re black. Simpson didn’t invent or originate this sometimes unseemly, always frustrating racial divide. It has long lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate.
The carefully orchestrated TV shots of jubilant blacks high-fiving his acquittal and rejoicing that a brother finally beat the system stood in stark contrast to the shots of grim-faced whites railing that a murderer got away.
Prosecutors in the trial skillfully painted Simpson as an irresponsible, abusive and violent husband. This portrayal shoved the issue of spousal abuse and domestic violence into the public view. Before, during and after the trial, hotlines at women’s shelters jumped off the hook. The press deluged the public with angry editorials about domestic violence. A number of states passed stiff laws mandating arrest and jail sentences for domestic assaults. Police, district attorneys and judges nationwide promised to arrest, prosecute and sentence domestic batterers.
This was certainly welcome, but it was also hypocritical. For years, the press, the public and politicians had turned a deaf ear to the issue of domestic violence. They only took action because America’s most famous batterer was a celebrated, popular icon — and a black one to boot. Still, the Simpson case ensured that domestic violence would remain a compelling public policy issue that the courts, lawmakers and the public could never again ignore.
The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians who branded the legal system corrupt also fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson’s acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire high-priced, high-profile attorneys, experts and investigators who routinely enable their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment.
Then there was the media, which struck pay dirt with Simpson.
The Simpson case turned the slow drift of much of the mainstream media toward tabloid sleaze sensationalism and a headlong rush into celebrity trials. Staid mainstream publications that in times past would have back-paged a murder case, even a celebrity case, morphed into the National Enquirer, Star and the legion of other tabloids. A gaggle of daytime gossipy talk shows have since successfully parlayed innuendo, rumor, half-truths and outright lies into hugely profitable empires and ratings bonanzas.
In the decade since Simpson’s acquittal, newspapers and the TV networks have force-fed the public a bloated diet of Simpson-style sensationalism in the form of the Beltway sniper, Laci Peterson, Robert Blake, Phil Spector and other highly publicized murder cases.
In the decade since the killings, some ask what we have learned. That’s easy: Race continues to divide, tabloid sensationalism sells, and justice, more often than not, is for sale for those with means. The Simpson case punched too many social, racial, and emotional hot buttons for it to ever permanently recede from public view.
Ten years after the murders, it still hasn’t.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a radio and TV talk show on KPFK-FM (90.7) and L.A. Channel 36.