I binge watched the new “O.J.: Made in America” documentary and there is but one conclusion: “White America” blew the O.J. trial. More than anything, the trial confronted the nation on race. It gave us an opportunity to understand what we’d become as a country and a unique chance to chart a new course. White America blew it in both respects. What we’d become was a nation filled with grievances after centuries of ignored cries for justice. Those untreated wounds for the darker half of America had festered into thoughts of vengeance; so much so that one juror admitted her vote was “payback” for the Rodney King verdict. More importantly, the trial presented White America the unique opportunity to explore a pain the other America feels daily; having been sensitized to it, this was the perfect catalyst for White America to determine that no American would ever feel that way again. This was a chance for radical reformation in criminal justice and race relations but alas, White America blew it.
Watching the ESPN documentary brought back memories of white anger from that time. As an 8th grader, my thinking was that White America had never seen a black person beat the system and thus they were angry. As an adult, I also realize that White America had never experienced a scenario in which blackness created an advantage and it was mind-blowing to them. The thought that O.J’s race helped him beat the system and that jurors could potentially align racially to hurt white victims–evidence be damned–was new and it hurt immensely. But this unique, rare reversal of fortunes brought White America a needed opportunity to change our national course. Finally understanding what it feels like for your color to work against you in court, White America should have insisted that no American be subject to that feeling again. White America was supposed to realize that such pain was not fit for their countrymen. White America was supposed to, without hesitation, determine that color and wealth should be non-factors in our justice system. They were supposed to decide that the system–from beat cops to juries–should only seek truth and justice for all. We were supposed to emerge a changed nation but you blew it, White America.
White America was deeply wounded by the O.J. verdict. The blood evidence pointed to O.J. as the killer of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman but he got off. In his interview for the ESPN documentary, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garrett said he was “truly offended” because he felt the jury did not “deliberate” before reaching a verdict. O.J.’s friend Peter Hyams found the “black jubilation” over the verdict “very offensive and very hurtful.” What they miss is that White America also had every opportunity to be offended and hurt over injustice to black Americans and refused. The same outrage expressed over Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman could have easily been shown for Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old black girl shot in the back of the head by a local grocer just 13 days after the Rodney King beating was caught on tape. Just like the officers who beat King, Harlins’ killer served no jail time. Rodney King and Latasha Harlins represent millions of black people that White America refused to show outrage or demand justice for, despite many pleas. Centuries of indifference and hostility from White America cultivated a thirst for payback and when given the (rare) occasion, some jurors acted. White America, you blew it.
Instead of transformation White America chose anger. That anger was heightened when O.J. wrote a book detailing how he would have carried out the double murder. There was outrage and cries for boycott. What White America again failed to realize is that they had a chance to express that same outrage when Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old child, was killed in Mississippi by two white men. After just 67 minutes the jury freed his killers, who promptly told their story of coldblooded murder to a magazine for cash. These are the seeds that create thoughts of payback. Even so, O.J.’s trial was the moment for redemption and healing. White America knew how great their moment of pain was; they finally understood what it feels like for the criminal justice system to mock you with impunity and that should have sensitized them enough to say never again for any American. But this assumes that White America sees me and my people as Americans, as countrymen. That assumption has been a faulty one. It’s 2016 and White America is still not completely ready to say, “never again.”