OJ and Racial Progress

OJ Simpson is once again on the news, with a previously unreleased interview. The commentary wrapped around the interview touched on the role of the OJ trial in pop culture. However it missed something far more important – the OJ Simpson trial as a sign of racial progress in our country.

When OJ was found innocent, a lot of my white friends suggested that OJ got off because he was Black. This made my Black friends chuckle because being a Black male wasn’t and isn’t usually viewed as an advantage when interacting with our legal system. Their response was something along the lines of “My cousin Gerald is Black and he didn’t get off – and he was innocent!”

OJ, a Black man, didn’t get off because he was a Black man, because that just doesn’t happen. He got off because he was wealthy. The United States has a very good justice system and I think does a far better job of treating people equally than most systems in the world. But it’s naive to think that economic class, wealth, doesn’t have an outcome on a person’s interaction with our law enforcement and legal systems. Money buys better homes, better cars, better education – why wouldn’t it also buy better legal representation? This isn’t an indictment of our system, just a recognition of the dynamics of the real world. Class has always mattered in our legal system.

Except when race was involved. For much of our history, race always trumped class. Even back before desegregation there was a black middle class and even some reasonably wealthy black families. But this didn’t necessarily translate into extra or even equivalent legal protection for successful Blacks. If a successful Black person was accused of a crime by a white person, even a poor white person, the word of the white person carried more weight in our legal system. If it came down to one man’s word against the other, the poor white man was assumed to be telling the truth and the Black man, regardless of his wealth or accomplishments, was assumed to be lying. Race, being white, trumped class, being wealthier.

This is why the verdict was such an important milestone for our legal system. Against what seemed to be very compelling evidence, a very expensive legal team was able to win OJ’s freedom. It didn’t matter that he was Black – it mattered that he was rich, and able to afford a legal team that was beyond the economic ability of the vast majority of Americans of any color. When the verdict was announced, when OJ got off, Blacks weren’t celebrating because a Black man murdered someone and got away with it. They were celebrating because a wealthy man who also happened to be Black got away with it. They were celebrating because finally, in American, class trumped race. And as strange as this seems, this was a sign of progress in erasing the difference in how the races are treated in our country.

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