Sunday, July 3, 2016

OJ's America

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Over the past few months or so, my husband and I have spent our evening time together watching both the documentary OJ: Made in America and the dramatized account of the trial of the century The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, based on the book by Jeffrey Toobin. We are both lawyerly (he's an actual attorney, I had plans but ended up with four kids instead!) and thus were interested in the details that surrounded such a high-profile and controversial case.

We are also firm advocates of improved race relations, which is of course at the center of this story.

There are summaries of the story and reviews of the shows available all over the place. This article very succinctly gets to the main point:

[When the verdict was read] I couldn’t grasp sympathy for a man I was told was a killer. Today, I understand. What an overdue epiphany.

I watched these episodes with a great deal of both compassion and frustration. On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunity to understand the mindset of all those who were involved, particularly as most of the people at the center of the event are completely foreign to me. So I now get why OJ declared himself innocent. It's not unusual for domestic abusers to completely disassociate from their own actions, as this article highlights. I also get why Nicole was so drawn to him, why so many people fell for his charm and truly, deeply, found it impossible to believe he could have committed such a horrible crime.

And I understand the position of the defense to attack the evidence rather than trying to prove OJ's innocence. They were trying to draw attention to a larger problem, one that they felt transcended the particulars of this case. The producers clearly articulated the deep-seated need for the black community to have a victory, after centuries of injustice. Johnny Cochran had spent his life fighting against police brutality and bringing to light the egregious manner in which black people were treated. While every white person in the country felt kinship with Ron Goldman's father and Nicole Simpson's sister, every black person remembered Rodney King and felt kinship with OJ Simpson.

But there's where understanding ends and frustration begins. Because OJ Simpson was not an innocent bystander. He was not a victim of racism or police brutality. He was not part of the larger pantheon of black Americans who suffered oppression, tyranny, fear, and other legacies of racism and slavery. Even if he was, it does not heal centuries of injustice against black people to visit injustice on a white person. 

The focus of the case was not on ignoring the victims, of course. It was, as Cochran said in his closing arguments, on taking a stand against injustice and racism. Who wouldn't support such a laudable goal? Why would the jury act in a small and selfish manner to achieve justice for two individuals when they could deliver justice to an entire people?

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know it didn't work. The reason is obvious: there can be no overarching virtue that is not practiced in the small, immediate, and mundane moments of our everyday lives. Racial inequality is not overturned by a massive court case. It's overcome by countless small acts of fairness done by ordinary people who hear their neighbor speak out against immigrants and say "That's not fair," or give up their seat on the train to a woman in hijab, or come to the defense of a stranger in a restaurant.

It helps to know the background, to have a context that explains why they did it, even if I think they made the wrong choice. For me, the complete disconnect between white Americans' reactions to the verdict and black Americans' reactions were the most interesting part of the story. While I wouldn't be dancing and singing if I heard the verdict read for the first time today, at least now I understand why so many people did.

And understanding this divide is key to how we plan our future as a nation. On the eve of Independence Day, I think it's appropriate to reflect on whether this great country is truly the land of opportunity and freedom that we claim to be. I am myself an immigrant, and have only been a US citizen for half my life. I'm going to spend today and tomorrow celebrating my country, and praying for those whose experiences here are less joyful than mine has been.

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