In the rush of opinions and analyses following the arrest oJ. Simpson, few have been as misguided as those tagging the Simpson saga as a case of another black man toppled by the System. "Let a brother get too big," this chorus of voices declares, "and the white man will bring him down. Now he's going to find out what it is like to be treated like a black man." In addition to his fame and wealth, his marriage to a white woman, the argument goes, is what made it necessary to bring him down. This cluster of views ranges from the assertion that Simpson was quickly considered a suspect because he is black to the claim that he was set up by the police or other officials--framed. Similar laments were heard during the legal troubles of Marion Barry, Michael Tyson and, to a lesser extent, Michael Jackson.
For all their rhetorical flourish, such claims misconstrue the contemporary role of race in American society and interpret a 1990s event through the lens of an outdated 1960s vision of race relations.
Proponents of this argument ignore the reality: Simpson has been treated more in accord with his class and celebrity status than his race. Even after evidence connected him to the murders, police granted Simpson the dignity of turning himself in rather than arresting him as they would a less famous suspect. And if people were trying to bring him down, they could have done so during those many occasions when the police were called to his home because of his brutalizing Nicole Simpson.
O. J. has escaped many of the limits that other black men regularly encounter, both in his life and during this criminal proceeding. The overworked publicly financed lawyers who represent most black men accused of felonies often plea-bargain without the benefit of elaborate strategizing or excruciatingly detailed preliminary hearings. In contrast, some of our nation's premier criminal defense attorneys have joined Simpson's defense team.
Before this tragedy, Simpson's public persona, including his marriage to Nicole, had made him more acceptable to many whites, not more threatening (as would have been the case a generation or more ago). His famous Hertz ads were not targeted toward black audiences; they had nothing to do with race. As America's most celebrated black athlete at the outset of the post-segregation era, Simpson led the way for others, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson, to attain levels of commercial success and public adoration not limited by their race.
In spite of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, many people, white and black, cling to their belief that Simpson could not have committed the murders. "It just doesn't seem like the type of thing he'd do,' people explain. Had he not been insulated by personal wealth and celebrity from prevailing societal attitudes toward black men, the presumption would have been the opposite. The people lining the freeways during that slow-speed chase did not cheer for Simpson's capture. They showered him with the same words of encouragement as when he darted past tacklers on the football field: "Go, O. J., go!"
For sure, this society remains hostile to black men and there are undoubtedly bigots who revel in Simpson's downfall. But we are past the time when all black Americans are smeared with the same broad brush of explicit racial bias.
Race relations are more complex and nuanced than a few generations ago. Race does play a role in contemporary society, but not its predictable, traditional role. Distorted racial imagery lingers in our national consciousness and our painful past reaches into the present. Nowhere is that more evident than in our national discourse about crime. Our willingness to imprison young black men reveals a presumption of worthlessness and criminality. Although legislators talk about harsh criminal sanctions in terms of fear of crime, rather than race, the two mix in ways people often prefer to ignore.
Yet the norms against bias and stereotyping mean that the underlying racial images are rarely expressed openly. And more than at any previous time, the social mobility afforded by wealth and celebrity allows countless black Americans to separate themselves from the prevailing social image of black Americans. People like Simpson are exempt from what others have called "the black tax." Thus, how other people see him, and perhaps how he sees himself, results more from the individual identity he has carved in the American mind than from his race.
Whatever happens, O. J. will not only not be lynched, high-tech or otherwise; he will receive the fullest protections the Constitution provides. If only most black Americans did as well.