PRELUDE TO THE NARRATIVES:THE QUIET RIOT
Oh boy, we’re going to have to pay for this.
—Anonymous Black person2
How can we possibly vote for Colin Powell now? How can we give them that much power?
—Anonymous white person3
Before I discuss the Simpson case in the context of the two previously mentioned political Narratives, I want to put forward some caveats about the reading of these Narratives. I have constructed them as one explanation for the Black community’s response to the O. J. Simpson case. In the words of Professor Susan Reverby, "[t]his is a story about race and gender and how they intersect."4 The Narratives attempt to grapple with this "story" in the context of a discussion about how gender is contested in antiracist discourse.
I also do not forward these Narratives to suggest that the decision rendered by the jury was racially biased5 or based on emotion rather than reason.6 Discussions of the Simpson case all too often fail to consider the extent to which the public saw a very different trial from the one seen by the sequestered jurors.7 As Professor Gerald Uelmen, cocounsel for the defense, points out, "[t]he jurors missed the heart – wrenching tears of the victims’ families in the corridors and the tabloid headlines with the computer-simulated photos."8 Many of us who were exposed to these prejudicial images could not purge them from our minds as we evaluated Simpson’s guilt.9 While we, and not the jury, were exposed to the most emotional and sensational aspects of the trial, it is the jury that was accused of rendering a decision based on emotion.10
Nor should the Narratives be construed to suggest that white people’s responses to the case, both before and after the verdict, were unproblematic and that Black people’s responses were necessarily problematic. Much has been made about the "cheering" and the "celebration" in the Black community—on college campuses, in barbershops, on the streets—subsequent to the Simpson verdict. The media coverage of the Black community included four elements: (1) a questioning of the "celebration"—how can they be so happy when two people are dead? (2) an amplification of the already prevalent notion that the Black community is monolithic and that Black racial allegiance created the "celebratory mood"; (3) a determination that the jury’s verdict was infirm, attributing this "celebratory mood" to the jury; and (4) an obfuscation of the stony quiet of white America, which was really a "quiet riot."11
Finally, the Narratives should not be employed to invalidate the racial divide thesis: that the difference between the Black and white communities’ responses to the case reflects the very different social realities of Black people and white people. Seeing this racialized difference in the "cheers" from Black America and the "jeers" from white America,12 as well as racial divides on other issues, the Harvard professor Robert J. Blendon commented that "blacks and whites may as well be on two different planets."13 I am persuaded that the racial divide thesis helps to explain Black and white responses to the Simpson case. Indeed, and at least according to the media,14 the dialogue between Black people and white people about the Simpson case approximates the following:15
WHITE PEOPLE: I can’t believe he got off. I’m shocked.16 It’s ridiculous.17 There was a mountain of evidence.18 How could they ignore all that evidence?19 Physical evidence. Scientific stuff. DNA is DNA.20 His blood type was found at the scene of the crime. The incriminating bloody glove, what about that—found at the back of his house? If he isn’t guilty, then I don’t know who is. And where was he, anyway? No one seems to know.21 The defense flip-flopped about an alibi—he was playing golf, he was jogging, he was calling his girlfriend. And why did he flee? Innocent people don’t run.22 Let’s be real. I think we all know where he was and what he was doing.
BLACK PEOPLE: But how can you be so sure about his guilt, so confident that he did it? What about Mark Fuhrman, the man who scaled the walls of the Brentwood estate to "uncover" most of the evidence that was used against Simpson? He was the prosecution’s star witness, and he perjured himself on the stand.23 What about his repeated use of the "N" word and other racist pejoratives?24 What about his statements concerning interracial relationships?25 How can we trust the evidence if the person who was largely responsible for the evidence is a racist?26 Even Marcia Clark, who initially embraced Fuhrman, declared him a racist in her closing arguments.27 (I must admit, some of us think her dismissal of him was disingenuous: first we were asked to respect him and defer to his judgment, and a few weeks later we were being told that the world can do without him.)28 How can you concede that a person is a racist and concede that this racist was chiefly responsible for gathering the evidence used in a case against a black man, and not concede that such a person could have planted the evidence?29 After seeing Fuhrman as he really is, with his racial animus unmasked, how can you not concede that there is plenty of room for reasonable doubt?
WHITE PEOPLE: Fuhrman is a racist. And like Marcia Clark, I think he should be condemned. But Fuhrman’s racism doesn’t mean that Simpson didn’t do it. Police misconduct doesn’t preclude guilt.30 Are you saying that we can never lock up a Black person because the criminal justice system is racist?31 You can’t be saying that. And what about domestic abuse? Everyone seems to have forgotten about that.32 We all know that, on more than one occasion, O. J. physically abused Nicole. What about those 911
BLACK PEOPLE: With respect to Fuhrman, all we are saying is that if you can’t trust the man in charge of the evidence, you can’t trust the evidence. No one is suggesting that because the criminal justice system is racist you can never lock up Black men. The question is whether the racism tainted the evidence.34 Fuhrman’s racism tainted the evidence and his credibility. The integrity of the investigatory process was compromised.35 As for the domestic abuse, the fact that O. J. may have beaten his wife does not prove that he killed her.
WHITE PEOPLE: But it proves that he could have killed her, that he might have, that there was a pattern of violence that escalated and culminated in murder.
BLACK PEOPLE: O. J. did abuse Nicole, but he wasn’t on trial for domestic abuse. He was on trial for murder.36 The fact that he abused Nicole doesn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he murdered her.
WHITE PEOPLE: Many of us feel that the decision, a four-hour decision, did not take long enough. It seemed to us that the jury voted to acquit Simpson because he is Black. It was race-voting, a crude display of racial favoritism.37 Johnnie Cochran played the race card, and Simpson won the hand.38 Surely, you understand how we feel. The Simpson case is our Rodney King case:39 here, as in the Rodney King case, racial loyalty got the better of the jury. "People are supposed to check their ethnic identities at the door and assess the evidence"40 in a racially neutral fashion. What we are left wondering is whether Blacks will ever convict other Blacks.
BLACK PEOPLE: What people seem to forget is that Black people send other Black people to jail all the time.41 This case is not about racial loyalty, it’s about preserving the presumption of innocence unless there is sufficient evidence to rebut it. The prosecution simply did not meet its burden of proof. The crimes implicated in the Rodney King case were recorded, captured on film for all the world to see.42 None of the evidence presented in the Simpson case was as compelling as that videotape. The Simpson case is not to white people what the Rodney King case is to Black people.
WHITE PEOPLE: Come on. You can’t be telling us that race was not an issue for the jury. What about the juror who raised his fist in an obvious show of Black solidarity?43
BLACK PEOPLE: Sure, race was an issue. Mark Fuhrman is a racist. I think you make too much of the fist.44 I’m not sure that it was a Black Power fist. At any rate it probably reflected the belief that, for once, the system seemed to work for a Black defendant.
WHITE PEOPLE: What kind of message are we sending with this verdict anyway—that a man can beat his wife and then kill her with impunity?45
BLACK PEOPLE: The message being sent, we think, is that racism can no longer be used to send Black people to jail— that the police and the state must follow procedure when a man’s liberties are at stake.46
WHITE PEOPLE: I think a lot of people are going to lose faith in the system.47
BLACK PEOPLE: We lost faith in the system a long time ago. It rarely works for us.48 The verdict may cause some of us to have hope.49
WHITE PEOPLE: Well, I guess we will just have to disagree on this one. It’s really unfortunate, though, that we’ve allowed this case to divide us.50
BLACK PEOPLE: We’ve been disagreeing on many things for a long time.51 The racial divide is nothing new. The Simpson case exposed,52 and perhaps even dramatized, the divide, but it certainly didn’t cause it.53
Quite legitimately, then, one can argue that the Black community’s response to the Simpson case reflects the fact that Black people and white people, "in a fundamental sense. . . live in different worlds."54 But it would be a mistake to stop there. For as I explore later, as different as these worlds of Black and white are, gender clearly matters in both of them. I lay out the following Narratives with the intention of highlighting the fact that in the Black community the construction of Blackness as a subordinated identity and the description of racism as an oppressive experience take place within contested collective cultural and political symbols of Black subordination. We cannot understand these symbols if we do not recognize a basic fact: they privileged the victim status of Black men.