Understanding the racial divide over O.J. Simpson’s acquittal

In 1995, when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, The New York Times ran dueling photos on its front page.

One showed white people aghast: a man with his mouth agape, a woman with one hand on her head and the other hugging her own body.


The other photo showed three Black people embracing in celebration, one of them, Sylvia Woods, an owner of a popular restaurant in Harlem, seeming to yell, with her arms stretched wide and fists clenched.

These images captured the way the trial and its verdict sharply divided the country by race. Many white people saw it as a straightforward case in which the victims, suspect and evidence were clearly defined. For them, the celebration of the verdict by Black people was perverse, an extreme case of racial tribalism and a disregard for basic humanity.

Many Black people, however, saw it quite differently. O.J. Simpson — who died on Thursday at 76 — was no paragon of Blackness; in fact, he wanted to transcend racial categories. He told the Times in 1994 that his biggest accomplishment was being seen as a man first, not a Black man.

It’s not that most Black people thought him innocent or another Rosa Parks. For them, it was the system itself that was on trial. The question wasn’t whether the justice system would work equally in the service of justice but whether its inherent and inveterate injustices would also be applied equally.

The Simpson trial came in the shadow of the trial of the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King and were still found not guilty.

Los Angeles exploded in riots. Scores of people were killed. Buildings were reduced to ashes.

It was one of the costliest riots, in terms of property damage, in American history.

People had exhaled their frustration in a language of death and destruction, but the violence was ultimately injurious to their own communities, and it brought no gesture or symbol of rectitude from the justice system itself.

The Simpson trial, in a strange way, held promise of closure in the ancient eye-for-an-eye sense.

Could a Black man, with evidence stacked against him, be acquitted in the same way that those white men, with evidence stacked against them, were?

The answer was yes.

Paradoxically and, quite frankly, depressingly, the verdict proved that injustice was an equal opportunity offender, at least in this rarest of cases.

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