What if O.J.’s Trial Happened Now?

Among the signature images of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend was the contrasting tableaus of Black people grouping in front of television screens applauding while white people watching it were shaking their heads — appalled, perplexed and even disgusted by a verdict that flew in the face of obvious fact. Those contrasting perspectives have gone down as demonstrating a gulf of understanding between the races.

That gulf persists, but it narrows apace, and if the verdict came down today, it would be a lot less perplexing to many white people than it was back then. Many would understand why the jury acted as it did. We might even see some of them applauding along with Black people.

It isn’t that these people would celebrate Simpson himself, any more than the jurors did back in 1995. As has been often noted in the wake of his death, Simpson was not much of a hero in the Black community, as he spent little time with Black people, dated white women, made no contributions to Black-related causes and even declared “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.”

I’m not sure how many people of any color sincerely believed that Simpson was not the murderer and that the L.A.P.D., which had long coddled him despite his frequent battery of his wife, had for some reason framed him. The evidence of Simpson’s deed was overwhelming despite the ineptitude of the prosecution team. The verdict and the response to it among the Black community weren’t signs of support for Simpson; they were protests against a long legacy of mistreatment and even murder at the hands of the police.

For Black people in Los Angeles recalling how the L.A.P.D. had treated them for decades, for Black people in Philadelphia not long past the all but open racism of the police force there under Mayor Frank Rizzo, for Black people in Chicago remembering the racist profiling and abuse by the cops called the Flying Squad, the sheer fact of a Black man getting off on a murder charge was of epic significance. If anything, the fact that he was obviously guilty only amplified the victory.

For all the statistical discrepancies between Black and white Americans, interactions with the police may be the central driver of how many Black people experience racism. I noted this in my research and conversations in preparation for my book “Losing the Race” in the late 1990s, when I was sincerely trying to figure out why so many Black people spoke of racism almost as if it were the 1890s rather than the 1990s. There is a reason that the main focus of the Black Panthers was combating police brutality, that anti-cop animus was central to gangsta rap and that today Black Lives Matter may be more influential than the N.A.A.C.P.

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