OJ Simpson

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I watched the first segment of the OJ Simpson documentary Saturday night and found much to think about. I won’t be able to watch the next episode, and quite possibly none of the others, so I will make do with what the first segment foreshadowed and what I remember about him and what eventually happened.
The background of his rise to prominence was the Watts riots just before his arrival at USC and the radicalization of famous black athletes which intimidated many whites. The basis of his fame was athletic ability, but what made it possible was the unthreatening persona he constructed. I always thought he was a nice guy, which was probably true to some extent, but it never occurred to me to look more deeply. I doubt I could have foreseen what happened, though.
The documentary points out that he was the first black athlete to make widely effective commercials, which appealed to white consumers as well as black ones. He had been in a protected place at Southern Cal, with no necessity to speak about the situation of black people, though he’d certainly experienced it growing up in San Francisco. Some black athletes, like Jim Brown, John Carlos, and Bill Russell, felt it necessary to speak out for the benefit of the black community. Simpson didn’t. His ambitions were for his own benefit.
But he did come across as a nice guy. After leaving USC he went to play for the Buffalo Bills, and endured two years of frustration, until Lou Saban became head coach and built the offense around him. Saban did so by drafting a bunch of offensive linemen, and he seems to have been the one to first suggest that Simpson could gain 2,000 yards rushing in a season, breaking Jim Brown’s single season record. I remember seeing one of those games, and being amazed at one of his runs. When he did break Brown’s record he insisted on including his offensive line in the TV interview after the game. That kind of generosity played well.
The first segment of the show (put together by ESPN) ends with his meeting Nicole Brown, white and only 18 years old when Simpson was about thirty. They liked each other immediately, he divorced his first wife, and they married. He had already begun acting, not only in commercials, but also movies. He was a success, having achieved most, if not all, of his ambitions. He didn’t want to be judged by the color of his skin, and it has been suggested that he came to not even think of himself as black. Unfortunately, others hadn’t forgotten.
In some short searches I can’t find any reference to his use of cocaine, but I certainly seem to remember hearing that he had. If that’s true, it may explain why Nicole Brown Simpson fell out of love with him. Cocaine, like other drugs, is a way to blot out uncomfortable feelings, but it doesn’t do so perfectly. It can provoke the user to violence, and parts of the first segment seem to say that Simpson abused his wife. If so, no wonder she began to fear him, and their marriage eventually ended. One of his important ambitions had thus been realized, and then surrendered.
It’s possible that Simpson was in fact innocent of the murders, but the fact remains that he had plenty of motivation to commit them, and his behavior that led to the famous televised car chase suggests that he was feeling guilty and devastated. I hoped that he was innocent, and of course he was acquitted, but many people were sure he was guilty, and a lot of them were white.
One piece about him tells how the author asked a black couple if they thought Simpson was guilty. The man said he was, but that if he were in the jury he would vote for acquittal. Why would he say that? Was it because he had some notion of Simpson’s difficulty in “passing” as an unthreatening black man (something any black man has to do in this society) and sympathized, even if he couldn’t condone his actions?
In any case, the trial ended his love affair with white society, which now saw him as threatening, not only because of the murders (of which he was not unequivocally proven guilty), but because he had gotten away with it. It’s okay for whites to get away with bad behavior, but not for blacks, especially blacks married to white women whom they may have killed.
His later armed robbery of his sports memorabilia shows that his judgment hadn’t improved in the years since the trial, and I suspect he felt bitter too. He had fallen in love twice: with his wife and with white society, and had been rejected twice. He must have been very unhappy to try to repair his situation with armed robbery, and I doubt he’s any happier now.
It occurs to me that his case is very similar to that of Bill Cosby. There were a number of black comedians who became prominent in the 1960s, including Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, and Flip Wilson, but Cosby was the most popular of them all (and had the longest career), and I suggest that a lot of his success came from his ability to, like Simpson, construct a persona that was unthreatening to whites. I was shocked to hear the allegations of drugging and rape, and would have preferred not to believe them, but there were too many going back too many years to ignore. I can only believe that he is guilty, and expect that he’ll eventually spend some time in prison. His wealth will protect him from some of the punishment, but I doubt it will deflect it entirely.
How are we to understand what these two men did? Probably that both were very angry. This can hardly be surprising because of the long history of persecution of blacks in this country, which has somewhat lessened in the past fifty years, but not a great deal. Black people can hardly help being angry, though they’re expected to pretend otherwise, unless they want to be punished. Simpson and Cosby especially must have buried their anger pretty deeply. Perhaps Simpson’s was less deeply buried, so that when his anger came out, it erupted in violence. Cosby’s anger must have been more controlled. He must have had some expectation that he would never be punished for what he did, and certainly he’s gotten away with it for decades.
Many whites seem to assume that unless blacks are repressed they won’t fail to take revenge on whites who have been mistreating them for hundreds of years. It seems obvious to think that those who hate will be repaid with hatred, so that continuing to hate will only make the adjustment more violent when it comes. But few seem to want to repair the rupture between black and white. Many continue to believe that black people are inherently evil, and that what Simpson and Cosby did are examples that prove it, but the fact is that such things have occurred on the other side of the racial divide. James Hammond is one of many examples.
Hammond was one of South Carolina’s prominent politicians in the decades before the Civil War, and was one of the voices adamantly calling for secession. He also owned several large plantations with more than 300 slaves. At one point he bought a 21 year old slave woman with whom he slept until her daughter (a year old when he bought her) was 12, when he began sleeping with her instead. His wife (whom he seems to have married primarily in order to inherit the plantation from her father) discovered his behavior and confronted him, telling him to choose between her and his slave women. He chose the slave women, and was separated from his wife for five years, but she returned to him. He also was guilty of sexual behavior with four young girls related to one of the most powerful of the plantation owners in the old South. He blamed them for the behavior, and none of them ever married. He also replied to a northern critic of the South, who accused slave owners of taking advantage of the female slaves, by saying the person had a vivid imagination, although he knew better.
We know about Hammond because of his prominence. Was he an anomaly? Were slave owners generally better behaved than he? An English woman visiting in the South in the 1840s later wrote that it was obvious that the plantation owners were sleeping with the slave women, and that their wives were refusing to acknowledge the situation. Remember too how many black men got lynched after the Civil War well into the twentieth century because of suspicion that they had raped, or merely lusted after white women. As bad as Simpson and Cosby’s behavior was, they had plenty of precedent from white behavior.
It’s amazing to think how a person could have adjusted to being kidnapped from another continent, stuffed into a ship in which he or she could neither sit nor lie down nor have any sanitary way to urinate or move their bowels, be forced to stand naked at the slave market for potential owners to view, be harshly punished by people who didn’t even know their language, and forced to work for many hours each day. Many black people probably have little conscious knowledge of what their ancestors endured, but I would almost think such experiences must have been engraved on their DNA, to say nothing of being reinforced by unjust punishments since the time of slavery. For many it’s not politically correct to talk this way about race, but few of our white ancestors had as much to overcome. It’s easy for some to blame the victims.
It’s a shame that Simpson and Cosby apparently did what they’ve been accused of doing. It’s also a shame that blacks in particular have so many negative stereotypes to overcome. Both men seemed to have overcome them, but ultimately had not. Both seemed benign, but concealed depths of frustration and resentment. Others climb mountains and fall too, but to me these cases seem more excruciating. I rooted for both, and was disappointed.

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2 thoughts on “OJ Simpson

  1. Julian Scala

    I doubt whether race was the primary factor in either case. Wealth, power and celebrity very often turn people of any color or either gender into fabulous monsters consumed by vanity. Phil Spector is the mirror image of O.J. Simpson. Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House,
    Has recently been exposed as a systematic abuser of his students when he was a high school coach decades ago. He was not yet as powerful as he would be later, but he did wield authority over more or less powerless children. Moreover, you could say that he exhibited in this manner the self-absorption and morbid lust for mastery that may be the most salient characteristic of politicians generally. In any case, I suggest that whether or not race had some relevance to Simpson’s and Cosby’s apparent crimes, the primary cause in both cases was something more fundamental: a sense of entitlement magnified and distorted by wealth and power.

    You might say that what I’m suggesting here is what Bernie Sanders has been suggesting in his presidential campaign: that identity politics are secondary to the politics of class. As Obama has shown, and as Clinton will probably have the chance to show, a black person or a woman can be just as much of a son-of-a-bitch as a white man, given great power and prestige. On the other hand, I suppose one could say that all of the people we’ve mentioned here are victims of their own too-adulatory fans and supporters. In a culture defined by hierarchies of power, everyone is debased to one extent or another.

    • Certainly too much power and adulation were major factors in both cases. I think, from what I saw in the first episode of the Simpson documentary, that race was a factor in his case. I think Simpson fell in love with white society just as he fell in love with a white woman, and became bitter when rejected–first by his wife, then by white society in general. It’s less obvious in the case of Cosby, though I think it was operative to some extent. I think it’s often difficult to separate race from class. For many people (excluding professional athletes and highly successful musicians) the two categories overlap to a significant degree. Cosby and Simpson escaped the class category, but Simpson’s escape didn’t last, and it looks like Cosby’s won’t either.

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