Free (us from) O.J., please!
In recent weeks, “O.J.” – as in Simpson – has taken up residence on the media terrain temporarily muscling out (or offering an anecdote to) “The Donald” – as in Trump.
Seemingly out of nowhere came along came TV programs over the past month on the “trial of the century,” “The bronco chase,” a “The People versus O.J. Simpson” weekly series and a full blown repeat of the trial itself.
So, pray tell, what on Earth is it about the trial and Simpson himself that continues to enthrall so many of us some two decades later?
And, yes, the “us” includes yours truly, someone who has read just everything that’s been written about the Simpson case; a collection that includes books by prosecuting attorneys Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, the late Johnny Cochran’s (author of, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit”) autobiography and, most recently, “He did it!” by the family of the late Ron Goldman, the second victim of the slayings over two decades ago.
So here I sit in my basement office in Georgia like I did 20 years ago in my basement in New Jersey, tapping away on my desktop with the trial unfolding on the big screen in the adjacent room. Detective Mark Fuhrman’s grilling by attorney F. Lee Bailey is taking place as I write this.
But the question remains, what is it about this O.J. thing that keeps us glued to media when his names comes up or, like me, buying “anything O.J.” (Except the National Enquirer which I’ll admit to stealing a look at if O.J. is on the cover)?
Guilty = 28 Not Guilty = 2
That was the “verdict” etched out on the top of a flipchart as I walked into the conference room to conduct a workshop on the day the Simpson verdict was to be announced. It was 9 am Eastern time.
The group of 30 managers, all of them white for what that’s worth, were responsible for that pre-workshop “vote,” having gotten together the day before during their off-site meeting. They asked me at the outset if we could pause the workshop to watch the verdict on the large TV monitor on the wall. I agreed.
And when the “not guilty” verdict rang out and reverberated through the TVs and consciousness of millions of folks around the world, we all sat frozen. There were soft murmurs, a loud cuss, a hand-cuffed mouth or two and a “you gotta be kidding.”
And then there was silence, deafening silence.
Immediately my instincts kicked in and I suggested that we take a break, then resume the workshop in 20 minutes. Since I too needed time to step back and process my emotional reactions to the verdict, I promised to allow participants to discuss the verdict once we resumed. They all agreed. However, 22 out of the 30 chose not to return to the room. Eight did return. Eye contact was difficult. My awkward questions were met with hallow answers and blank stares. And more silence. We decided it best just to call it a day.
Which brings me back to Simpson 2016.
So, what’s up with this resurfacing of the old “O.J. thing? I decided to put that question out to a few folks of different races whose views on social issues I highly value. Here are some of the responses:
“Oh my, you caught me off guard with your question Terry,” emailed Teresa from Tennessee. “Give me a few days to think about this and I’ll get back to you. But I will say that it strikes me that the fascination is not with Nicole or Ron, but only O.J.”
Wrote Roberto from Kentucky, “I really have not given this any thought Terry. However, to the extent that there is a resurfacing of too much of what dominated the news cycles about O.J., I have no doubt that there are lots of unresolved issues around the white, blonde, attractive female who was, ostensibly, murdered by a black man.”
“My honest opinion Terry is that all this attention to O.J. is a subtle message to young white women about the dangers of dating and marrying rich and powerful black men,” said Roger from Georgia. “If you look at the number of commercials that now feature interracial couples, I privately wonder if bringing up O.J. these days is some kind of a warning about what could happen if you marry outside your race.”
“I really have not watched or paid attention to this,” replied Edward from Texas. “My thoughts are the outcome of the case and public opinion has not changed. He was acquitted by the jury and guilty by public opinion. The O.J. trial proved that the justice system can be manipulated if you have the resources”.
So how and when does this Simpson obsession end? Why are so many of us still so Simpson-rapt that TV ratings on recent programs have soared?
Well let’s be honest here; the truth is that many Americans are still mad as hell about the verdict. Here we are decades later and the finger-pointing remains. Many folks want nothing short of a highly unlikely confession from Simpson himself or, short of that, the man spending the rest of his years behind bars.
The other part of the answer is that after all these years, there remains legitimate questions about the sometimes volatile mix of power, race, sex, and goo garbs of money that permeated the case.
As to legitimate questions, in his recent New York Times editorial about Donald Trump, Frank Bruni surmised the following:
“There are legitimate questions of proportion in regard to Trump coverage, and perhaps he has been accorded additional acres of news media real estate because he’s so easy to talk and write about, a policy-free zone of quickly digested, succinctly rendered struts and slurs”.
Now, step back and reread the preceding paragraph, but this time supplanting the reference to “Trump” with the word “Simpson.” There, you have it, part of the answer anyway.
Now set your dial for the next go around. April 16th. “The Confirmation”- the Clarence Thomas hearings, and with it another volatile mix of race, sex, power…and another high profile black male.
Be sure to have your popcorn ready!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story-teller. He serves as senior associate with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and Contributing Writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, the American Diversity Report, and New York-based Catalyst and is the founder of the Global Diversity Consortium. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com