John McWhorter on What O.J. Simpson Taught Him About Being Black

Scholar-John-McWhorter

It is easy to forget how beloved a celebrity O. J. Simpson was in his time — Heisman Trophy winner, N.F.L. superstar, Hollywood actor and pitchman supreme. Until he was arrested in the brutal slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman, after a televised police chase that transfixed the nation, he seemed to have transcended his roots in San Francisco housing projects. 

Yet if Mr. Simpson’s guilt seemed clear to much of America, African-Americans were disinclined to see it that way. Over months of lurid televised court testimony — now being dramatized in a series that started this week on FX — Mr. Simpson became a symbol, to many blacks, of endemic racism in the justice system. And when a jury with nine black members declared him not guilty on Oct. 3, 1995, black people across the country cheered.

I wasn’t one of them.

I must admit I was as disappointed as many whites that black college students gleefully applauded the verdict as if Mr. Simpson were one of the Scottsboro Boys. While the police and prosecutors had been far from brilliant, and reasonable doubt was, well, reasonable, Mr. Simpson’s innocence seemed decidedly unlikely.

At the time, what I saw was people ignoring the facts in favor of a kind of tribalism. A black journalism professor asked me, as a linguist, to lecture on language and the trial. I’d be glad to, I told him, but I thought Mr. Simpson was guilty. I never heard from him again.

Meanwhile, black friends and family continued coming up with ways that damning evidence could have been planted and obsessing over the use of a racial epithet by a police detective in the case. I felt alienated, angry, disappointed.

But I was missing something. The case was about much more than bloody gloves and bloody footprints. It was about the centrality of police brutality to black Americans’ very sense of self.

I came to realize this when, disgusted with the verdict and the response to it, I began to investigate — at first informally — why so many of my fellow blacks’ takes on racism seemed to me to be more fitting to 1935 than 1995.

After a while I realized that the rub was that my life had spared me from experiencing or even seeing police abuse. I had seen the video images of the vicious beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers four years earlier but had lived too fortunate a life to spontaneously see it as something that could happen to me.

To this day I am bemused by the occasional white person who assumes that I have a “story” to tell about triumphing over racism, that I was raised by working-class parents just getting by. I grew up solidly middle class in quiet, leafy suburbs — one integrated, one all black — where the police were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Racism had brushed my life now and then, but not at the hands of the police. This was what kept me from processing the O. J. Simpson business “blackly,” as it were.

What I found when I spoke with people after the Simpson verdict, though, and have found since with numbing regularity, is that what prevents real racial conciliation and understanding in America is the poisonous relations between blacks and the police.

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Source: The New York Times

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia, is the author of “The Language Hoax” and the forthcoming “Words on the Move” and “Talking Back, Talking Black.”