Trial and Error

As the O.J. Simpson murder trial drags on, the American public
appears to be divided along racial lines when it comes to assessing
Simpson’s guilt. According to a recent Harris poll, 60 percent of
whites believe that Simpson killed Nicole Simpson and Ronald
Goldman. When the same poll asked African Americans for their
opinion on the matter, only 12 percent of those polled believe he
committed the crimes.

One reason for this apparent division may be, as Patricia J.
Williams notes in The Nation (March 13, 1995), that the
white-owned mainstream media has managed to transform the public’s
craving for catharsis into a tragedy of ignorance. The soap opera
atmosphere brought to the trial by the major media outlets makes
black anxiety about the justice system into a spectacle and ignores
the day-to-day experience of blacks. ‘These are not times for easy
prescriptions,’ Williams says, ‘but when the executives of
Entertainment Tonight are THIS exuberant, one has to wonder
if justice hasn’t been just a wee bit seduced by the thrill of the
hunt.’

Another reason for the division may be that the African-American
press has stood practically alone in providing a historical and
political context from which to understand the case. As Jeffrey
Toobin noted in a recent issue of The New Yorker (July 17,
1995), black papers like the Los Angeles Sentinel, have been
reporting the story as the struggle of a black man searching for
justice in a white judicial system from the outset. The black press
has also been printing a running critique of the mainstream media’s
mishandling of the case. Not long ago, the Pittsburgh
Courier
ran a banner headline reading ‘NEWS MEDIA SKILLFULLY
PAINTING O.J. SIMPSON AS AN UGLY AMERICAN.’

An awareness of, and intolerance for, racism separates black
press coverage from the superficial treatment the trial has
received in the mainstream media. And it’s not surprising that this
division carries over to the Internet, where the promise of
alternative viewpoints is a double-edged sword. The sickeningly
racist treatment of the case on The Official Unofficial O.J.
Simpson Web Page
testifies to the extreme stupidity that the
Net allows room for, featuring an animation of Simpson morphing
into a demon, as well as a number of racial slurs spattered through
the rest of the page.

In an effort to provide a space on the Web for thoughtful
consideration of the trial, Vibe Magazine and
Meanderings, a monthly electronic journal of politics, art,
and culture from an African-American perspective, are collaborating
on Squeezin’ the O.J. Hype!. In a compelling critique of the
media’s penchant for creating symbols out of black men, author Mike
Bowen contends that from from Willie Horton (crime) and Clarence
Thomas (sexual harassment) to Mike Tyson (rape) and Rodney King
(drunk driving) and now O.J. (spousal abuse), ‘we needed a black
face to imprint on America’s consciousness so deeply that it could
never forget…In the end, their effect is merely symbolic. O.J.
didn’t pay my tuition, Clarence didn’t pinch my sister, Colin
didn’t shoot my friend, homeboy didn’t steal my 401(k). I have a
choice as to what symbols affect me and my bookshelves are a lot
bigger than my TV.’

Original to Utne Reader Online, August
1995.

Patricia J. Williams, ‘America and the Simpson Trial,’ THE
NATION (March 13, 1995).

Jeffrey Toobin, ‘Putting it in Black and White,’ THE NEW YORKER
(July 17, 1995).

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