Collective Trauma: White America and the Ghost of O.J.
“I’m not Black, I’m OJ. . . Ok?”
This is one of the most poignant lines in Jay-Z’s song “The Story of OJ,” which is featured on his new album entitled 4:44. It is a sarcastic quip that sums up the problematic nature of the man, and highlights the inescapability of the United States’ “original sin” – racism and white supremacy. The song itself is also very timely as OJ has now been granted parole after serving an almost nine-year prison sentence (some form of payback for getting away with double homicide in 1995) for stealing his own sports memorabilia. This isn’t going to be an analysis of the song and the life story of Orenthal James Simpson, better known as O.J. Simpson, or “The Juice.” But this post will be about collective trauma!
The line in the song is so important because it directly quotes OJ, who was adored by fans of football from all racial/ethnic backgrounds. The line highlights the fact that he had crossed over, so to speak. There was, at the height of his fame in football and commercial endorsements (i.e. Hertz), a brief façade that OJ had indeed transcended race. The more his fame grew, it was evident that he wanted nothing to do with Black people or what “Black” represented. He was above it. Or so he thought.
When OJ became the prime suspect in the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, he and all of America were reintroduced to just how Black he really was! Race quickly became a centerpiece of the investigation and the eventual trial. With persons like former detective Mark Furman, who in many ways epitomized the racist abuse dished out to Los Angeles’ Black residents on a daily basis, Simpson’s race was unavoidable, and became essential. If you have had the opportunity to view the ESPN 30 for 30 eight-part documentary directed by Ezra Edelman, you truly get a comprehensive and, in my opinion, the definitive story on the trial. With an expert legal team comprised of, most notably, the late Johnny Cochren, OJ was acquitted.
October 3, 1995 was a day that will live in infamy (borrowing from President Franklin D. Roosevelts famous quote after the bombing of Pearl Harbor). When OJ was acquitted there was a distinct divide as it related to the public’s reaction. By this time, Simpson had become a pariah among white people, generally speaking, which included many of his former friends. Yeah, the ones he rejected his Blackness for. And even though African Americans knew OJ wasn’t “down,” to use a common Black colloquialism of the time (today it might be said that he wasn’t "woke"), there was a sense that “He’s one of ours.” If you remember, this was after the Rodney King beating, which was caught on camera (rarer occurrence in the pre-Black Lives Matter and smartphone era), and the highly publicized (much like Simpson’s) trial that resulted in all the officers being acquitted. They were acquitted of all charges after video evidence that would have surely convicted them (sound familiar?) under a system of equality and “justice for all.”
When the verdict came down, generally speaking, white people were stunned and visibly sad and angry. Black people, on the other hand, were celebrating with loud enthusiasm. Most of us have seen the split screen images of Black and white crowds reacting in these distinctly different ways to the same verdict, such as the one above. The sad and ironic thing about it is many African Americans viewed Simpson’s acquittal as a victory in a long line of defeats suffered under the criminal justice system. Those same people celebrating couldn’t have cared less about OJ; they were just happy “one of our own” had beaten the justice system that had systematically beat down on them. The only problem with this was that. . . it was OJ!
Fast forward to July 2017, he is now a free man once again (officially later this year). The list of African American men, women, and children (especially unarmed) gunned down by the police in this country continues to increase on an almost daily basis. We are continuously traumatized by the images of these killings. But we are further traumatized as a collective group by either the non-indictment of the officers by a grand jury, as was the case with Michael Brown, or the acquittal of the murderers, most recently Philando Castile, by juries across the country. When will it end?!
In all of these cases, and with all of the evidence that supports the fact that we still deal with police brutality as a result of racism and white supremacy in our system/culture of policing in the United States, there are those who vilify those willing to speak out and stand up against the state. Many of these people reject Black Lives Matter and counter with this movement for Black Lives with “all lives matter” (duh, but do we actually have a society like that), and, even more insulting, “blue lives matter” (never met a blue human). The empathy is literally non-existent. They scoff at Black people’s collective trauma, and find every possible way to blame the victims for their own deaths (can you imagine if we did that to OJ’s victims?).
I have long thought about the divided reaction to the OJ verdict, and I have done so as it relates to this inability of many white people to empathize with the Black trauma that is felt by these routine killings, and then acquittals of the murderers.
I have come to a conclusion that is not necessarily some profound proclamation, but is one that they can certainly empathize with. In order for many of the white people and others who reject collective Black trauma at these gruesome murders and inconceivable acquittals or non-indictments, all they must do is think back to their collective trauma at OJ’s acquittal. The highest profile case of the 20th century is certainly the starting point for them to begin to empathize. And if they don’t even empathize then, well, you know, their probably (100%) a racist.
But even with me declaring that, they’ll cry, “I’m not racist!”