OJ Simpson’s trial exposed America’s racial divide. Three decades later, what’s changed?

When a predominantly Black jury in Los Angeles acquitted O.J. Simpson of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, Camille Charles remembers watching the nation’s split-screen reaction on television: Black people cheering on one side, white people unhappy on the other.

Polls at the time nearly three decades ago found Black Americans were much less likely than their white counterparts to say they believed Simpson was guilty. But Charles, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the reactions – which came amid a “powder keg” period following the acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King – weren’t simply a celebration of the vindication of what some viewed as a wrongfully accused Black man.

“It was more complicated than that,” she said.

When the Simpson trial once again exposed the country’s deep racial divides, what was missing from the reporting at the time was the full complexity of what the case meant to Black Americans and their relationship to the criminal justice system, Charles and other experts told USA TODAY after Simpson’s death Wednesday from prostate cancer. At the time, one expert said, the media didn’t capture the voices of Black people who thought Simpson was guilty, the many white people who didn’t, or the opinions of other racial groups.

May 26, 1995; Los Angeles, CA; O.J. Simpson sitting in the courtroom during his double homicide case at the Clara Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles.

In the nearly 30 years since, as more perspectives on the trials of famous Black people have come to light, some progress has been made at narrowing the gap between how the justice system treats Black and white Americans, but more work needs to be done to address the lessons learned from the trial’s complicated legacy.

“I wish I could paint a picture that suggests that we’re substantially in a different place than we were during the trial. I can’t say that,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum. “What I can say that is part of the reason that we might not be as far as we’d like to be is because of that trial. It is because of the way a lot of people interpreted what the trial’s message was.”

How race become central to the Simpson trial

As Simpson rose to fame as a celebrated running back playing for the University of Southern California and the Buffalo Bills, he became “almost dismissive of his race. He had escaped being Black,” according to Marc Watts, who covered the so-called ‘Trial of the Century’ as a correspondent for CNN.

Unlike some of his fellow Black athletes, Simpson was not a strong advocate for civil rights and continued to distance himself from the Black community as he gained commercial success as a Hertz spokesperson and movie and television star, reportedly telling friends, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.,” Watts said.

But, Watts said, race would quickly become a key part of the defense strategy including when Simpson’s attorneys exposed racist statements made by detective Mark Fuhrman, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. Fuhrman pleaded no contest to perjury in 1996 for denying using a racial epithet in the previous decade during Simpson’s trial, the Associated Press reported.

“The word was ‘this is a Black man and like so many other Black men being lynched by the criminal legal system, it was unfair and it was unjust,” said Earl Smith, author of Race, Sport and the American Dream. “And that’s how that legal team presented O.J. to the jury at the trial.”

‘The thickness of the divide was real’

After Simpson was acquitted of the criminal charges, 16% of Black Americans and 69% of white Americans said he was probably or definitely guilty, ABC News reported. Katheryn Russell-Brown, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, remembers “the thickness of the divide was real.”

She noted there were “substantial numbers” of Black people who thought Simpson was guilty, just as there were white people who thought he was innocent.

“And so we were all kind of placed in to this Black/white dichotomy,” she said. “And what that also meant was that there was not a lot of reportage on what other racial groups, what members of other racial groups thought about the case.”

Russell-Brown, director of the university’s Race and Crime Center for Justice, attributed some of the early polling results to what she calls “Black protectionism,” or a desire to publicly rally around Black people who have been accused of a crime.

“Whether it’s the Emmett Till case, for example, decided by all-white jury in a very short amount of time not guilty, there are things we can look back to that explain why African Americans as a group might be loath to or might look at the case differently than members of other racial groups, particularly whites,” she said.

Sara Sternberg Greene, a sociologist and professor of law at Duke University, recalled encountering a similar sentiment while researching how low-income people perceived the civil justice system in the late 2000s.

“A lot of them said ‘no, this really is confidential, right? You won’t tell anyone? I wouldn’t even want my family to know this’ or ‘I wouldn’t want my friends to know this or my community, but I think he’s guilty,” she said.

Black respondents also told her in interviews they believed the justice system as a whole was “stacked against them,” but cited “O.J. as an example of being able to buy your way out of jail.” The response echoed a feeling that Americans appeared to have agreed upon since Simpson’s acquittal: A Washington Post survey published in days after the verdict was reached found eight out of 10 white Americans and two out of three Black Americans said Simpson would have been convicted if he “had not been rich.” 

“Class played a tremendous role in O.J.’s acquittal,” said Crenshaw. “But, again, because the framework was so kind of exclusively focused on race, those dimensions didn’t really rise to the level of legibility that one might have hoped.”

‘We might not be as far as we’d like to be’

The number of Americans who believed Simpson was guilty rose steadily, particularly after he was found civilly liable in 1997 for the battery of Brown-Simpson and the wrongful death of Goldman, ABC News reported, and in 2015 an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 57% of Black Americans and 83% of their white counterparts suspect Simpson was guilty.

Charles said this apparent shift could actually reflect a greater willingness of Black Americans to be publicly critical of Black celebrities, citing the responses to the allegations made against R&B star and convicted sex offender R. Kelly and actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who was released from prison after the overturning of his conviction on two sex crimes.

“The one area I think things have gotten better is that Black folks are willing to look more critically at a situation and to say out loud that some otherwise very popular Black person could have done something awful in a way that I think we were less inclined to do back then,” Charles said.

Charles said while the public conversation that the Simpson trial fueled seems to have shifted away from celebrities and toward cases like the killings of Trayvon Martin or George Floyd, the country is still reckoning with “the power of racial stereotypes and racism and inequality in the criminal justice system.”

“I think in some ways, it’s better in the sense that we can talk about it,” Charles said. “I think that, but I think that the ways that Black people seem to be expected to be in lockstep all the time about what they think and feel is still an issue.”

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