OJ Simpson, Rodney King, and Two Americas
Why Race Still Mattered (and still does)
The OJ Simpson murder trial dominated the headlines in the mid-1990s. Millions of captivated television viewers felt that they were witnessing a major event in American history. The simple fact, however, was that this trial had no real historical significance. While any murder of a human being is tragic, this trial was no more important than any other murder trial going on at the time. In spite of the enormous attention it received, this case should arguably be no more than a footnote in any American history book.
While this case had little historical importance in itself, it is still worth studying because of what it revealed about the United States at the time. In the end, the Simpson Trial was primarily a piece of entertainment, one of the earliest demonstrations of the appeal of “reality TV.” The only reason, in fact, that it ever became significant was because Simpson was a celebrity entertainer, first as a fantastic football player in the 1970s and later as a commercial spokesperson, sportscaster, and occasional actor. Because Simpson was a celebrity, and the media (both news and otherwise) is the entertainment industry, the details of his personal life – and that of all celebrity entertainers for that matter - were inherently important. Essentially, the OJ Simpson murder trial mattered because the media said that it did. The fact that it was such a compelling murder mystery turned this from conventional tabloid fodder into an international phenomenon. In the end, Simpson became more famous as a suspected murderer than he had ever been as an athlete or performer.
This trial, however, revealed more than that the United States was filled with celebrity-obsessed people happy to lap up whatever the media fed them. It also said something about the state of race relations in mid-1990s America. Part of what made this story compelling was that this was the case of a black man accused of murdering his white ex-wife and her white male companion. Within this single story, one could see fears and stereotypes related to black men that were as old as America itself. Ever since black men were first dragged here against their will, white people had two primary fears: black men with weapons and black men preying on white women. Numerous riots and lynchings occurred throughout American history due to merely the rumor that a black man went after a white woman. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird contains the most famous literary example of a black man who was guilty by accusation of assaulting a white woman. Emmett Till is probably the most famous real life example of a young man – or, in this case, teenager – being killed for merely acting inappropriately toward a white woman. It is no wonder that the Simpson case was particularly compelling and elicited so much passion.
Some might argue that I am exaggerating the racial component to this story. Simpson, after all, was hardly your average black man. He was a football icon who had been loved by many sports fans both black and white. There is, however, one undeniable fact. Black people in general were far more likely to think he was innocent than white people. For many white people, this was a pretty cut and dry case. The physical evidence pointing to Simpson’s guilt was undeniable. But for black people accustomed to having negative experiences with the police and criminal justice system, it was highly plausible that this evidence was planted. For this reason, the historically significant aspect of this story has little to do with Simpson’s actual guilt or innocence. This case revealed the extent to which black and white Americans, more than thirty years since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, still perceived America differently. Maybe the United States had not made as much progress as many people wanted to believe.
A couple years before the Simpson case made headlines, there was another highly newsworthy event that revealed the extent to which black and white people still viewed the world differently. In the spring of 1991, a video was released showing four Los Angeles police officers beating a man named Rodney King. While supporters of the officers claimed that Rodney King posed a threat and had to be subdued, it was clear from the video that he continued to be beaten long after he threatened anyone. People were horrified by what they saw, but the black community could also feel a sense of relief. Finally, there was clear evidence of the type of police brutality against black Americans that they had experienced and protested against for decades. It was not the video, in itself, that triggered the LA Riots. Instead, it was the acquittal of all the officers approximately one year after the video’s release. After five days of burning, looting, and violence, it felt like the 1960s race riots were happening all over again.
Like the OJ Simpson case, the LA Riots occurred almost thirty years after the major achievements of the Civil Rights Movement era. Although white Americans in the early 1990s knew on some level that racism was not completely gone, there was a general consensus that it was no longer significant. We had reached a point in which almost all Americans saw racism as a bad thing, as an ugly remnant of our past. While most white Americans were horrified by the Rodney King video and eventual acquittal of the officers involved, they were often angered more by the ensuing riots. Many argued that these were just some bad officers, and black Americans were not accomplishing anything by destroying their own communities. Rather than carrying out senseless acts of violence, they should have taken more of a Martin Luther King approach. Black Americans should have also remembered the improvements that had happened since King’s time and not blamed racism for all their problems. The actions of a few bad officers and a bad jury did not represent the police, white people, or American society in general.
Like the OJ Simpson case, the responses to these events revealed the extent to which the experiences of black and white Americans were still very different in 1990s America. Many black Americans felt that what happened with Rodney King was not some kind of an anomaly. Instead, the King video was just an extreme example of the types of harassment, brutality, and unfairness that black people dealt with all of the time from the American justice system. Even when there was overwhelming evidence of white police officers brutalizing a black man, these officers still got away with it. As often happened back in the 1960s, the “powder keg” – if I may borrow a phrase from Malcolm X – had finally exploded. Yes, as always, there were some random criminals who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the chaos. You could also make a strong case that non-white Americans suffered far more from the rioting than white Americans. Many black Americans, after all, were also horrified by what they saw playing out on their TV screens. But even if they did not agree with what was happening on the streets of Los Angeles County, they generally understood the frustration that led to the chaos and hoped that the nation in general might be woken up to the need for reform.
I have talked about the LA Riots in my American history classes for the past twenty years. Whenever I cover this event, I point out one simple truth: we are always one incident away from another riot. I would argue that in the modern United States, in fact, a Rodney King/LA Riot incident is even more likely than in the early 1990s. In a country where everyone has cameras in their pockets 24 hours per day, it is much easier to catch (and rapidly spread) incidents of police officers using violence against black Americans. On several occasions in recent years, particularly with the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of the police, we have seen protests turn violent. So far, the violence has not been as severe as in 1992. I remember being surprised at the time that something as nasty as the LA Riots could still happen in the United States. I won’t be surprised the next time. Or the next time.
Any topic related to race can be as politically divisive today as in the past. Just uttering the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can quickly trigger an intense argument. Whether a person believes that racism is still a significant issue or not, there is one truth that is undeniable. On average, black and white Americans still view the nation through different lenses. As has been true for more than 400 years, black people and white people still live in different Americas.