The Construction of O. J. Simpson as a Racial Victim
Devon W. Carbado
When the names Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Marion Barry and even Clarence Thomas become symbolic, like "Scotts – boro,” black women are left without a way to talk about how some of the Scottsboro "boys” (accused of raping two white women) actually did commit acts of violence and murder against their girlfriends and wives. Black women are left without a way to address Rodney King as anything other than a victim, even after his second arrest for domestic abuse. And we have no response to Tupac Shakur’s nameless accuser, whose lonely plea—"I did not deserve to be gang raped”—paled in comparison to Vibe magazine’s five-page cover story on Shakur as the misunderstood thug.
—Kristal Brent Zook1
SUBSEQUENT TO THE announcement of the not-guilty verdict in the O. J. Simpson criminal case, a considerable amount of legal and nonlegal commentary focused on the extent to which the Black community’s response to the verdict differed from the white community’s response. The explanations for this difference varied, though most were based on the idea that the difference reflected a racial divide in American society. In this essay, I offer another way of thinking about the Black community’s response to this case—that it reflects the subordination of gender issues, including domestic abuse, in antiracist discourse. The arguments I advance develop along two related trajectories: (1) Black racial identity is essentialized in antiracist discourse, and (2) Black male victimhood is privileged.
The essentialism argument is that implicit in antiracist discourse is the notion that there is an "essential," ungendered racial experience: the Black experience. However, this Black experience is often constructed, predominantly or exclusively, around Black male subordination. The victimology argument is that Black men occupy a privileged victim status in antiracist discourse. This status is reflective and constitutive of certain gendered notions about race and racism: that racism against Black men is representative of racism against all Black people. I refer to these male-centered conceptions of racism as "unmodified antiracism." To illustrate how unmodified antiracism is implicated in the Black community’s response to the O. J. Simpson case, I discuss the Black community’s discourse about this case in two po – litical/cultural narratives, each of which mediates the Black community’s understanding of race and racial injustice—the Black Male/White Victimhood Narrative (Black people, especially Black men, are treated unfairly in the criminal justice system, particularly when the victim is white) and the Black Male/White Female Narrative (Black men are lynched, figuratively and literally, by white society for having sexual relationships with white women). I argue that these narratives contain political symbols of race and gender that facilitated the construction of O. J. Simpson as a racial victim in a way that obscured that he was (also) a domestic abuser.