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Local Scholars Analyze the OJ Simpson Case; Media, Myths and Morality Plays

October 1994

By Paul Burton

(Published in the Valley Advocate, Hadley, MA, October 1994. Copyright Paul Burton. All Rights Reserved.)

Given the race, class and gender issues at play in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the media frenzy around the case, what will the impact of the trial be? Will Simpson be able to get a fair trial? Would the Simpson case receive the unprecedented media scrutiny if the victims had been black? If the murders had occurred in South Central L.A. instead of Brentwood? Is the whole media circus a purposeful attempt to distract us from more pressing political issues? These were some of the questions raised at a symposium held last week at Hampshire College that drew about 150 students and community members.

“Why a symposium on the OJ Simpson case?” asked Hampshire’s African American literature professor Bob Coles. “We have two objectives. First, to reaffirm the principle of innocent until proven guilty. If this principle is violated in the Simpson case then we are all vulnerable. Secondly, what is the impact of the trial, what can we learn?”

The symposium, “The O.J. Simpson Case: A Deconstruction of Legal and Media Issues,” brought together a panel of local academics: UMass professor of Afro-American studies Bill Strickland; Sut Jhally, professor of communications at UMass; Smith College Afro-American studies professor Ann Ferguson, and Hampshire College alumnus and current prosecuting attorney for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, Lamar Sims.  

Stories culture tells us

Citing a recent survey that revealed the marked difference in perception of Simpson’s guilt or innocence among blacks and whites (67 percent of blacks said they felt OJ was innocent versus an equal number of whites who said they felt OJ was guilty), Sut Jhally, co-author of “Enlightened Racism,” pointed out that blacks don’t want OJ to be guilty. “If OJ is guilty that says something about them.”  Negative images of blacks in the media “...are not just negative but dangerous—the image is reality. Blacks feel that the images affect them every day of their lives. Images are what society uses to make sense of you. They affect the way we interact.

Jhally contends that Simpson’s image is similar to Bill Cosby’s television character—successful in the dominant white culture, articulate and safe. Because Cosby “... changed the image of blacks from the old negative ones of muggers, drug dealers, and pimps—essentially hopeless characters,” blacks surveyed by Jhally were grateful for Cosby’s elevation of the black image to a more positive one.  “What Cosby did was give another image that white America would have to take into account, one that was human, normal.”

But the Cosby image is just one of the “... stories culture tells us,” according to Jhally. “You have to look at the interpretation of events through these stories: the story of blacks as criminals as represented by Willie Horton or Rodney King; the story of black affluence represented by Bill Cosby; and the story of the American Dream—pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, the kid from the ghetto who makes good, in many ways the story of OJ Simpson.”
To emphasize his point that perception is reality and image is everything, Jhally made a prediction.  “I’m not saying that evidence doesn’t matter,” he said. “But evidence is read through the lens of these stories. And with the high-priced storytellers who will spin the story to show OJ not as Horton or Tyson but Cosby, I predict he’ll get off.”

Spectacles and dramas

Touching on the gender issues of the Simpson case, professor Ferguson pointed out that most of the high profile cases dealing with gender issues also have a racial angle. “Child molestation, sex harassment, rape, and battering are perpetrated by all races, yet the media focuses on Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas, Mike Tyson and OJ Simpson.” 

Ferguson asked that we put the Simpson trial and the media coverage in the context of these other “spectacles and dramas.”

“Sex and money are at the heart of these morality plays,” Ferguson said. She also pointed out that Simpson had undertaken a kind of makeover to be successful in the white media, taking diction classes and practicing consciously to be gracious and congenial, “... as if to be gracious and congenial one cannot be black. But behind the image lurks the real OJ who can become a ‘beast’ according to Nicole Simpson—a black male without culture, reverting to black street language on the famous 9-1-1 tapes.”

Ferguson showed that Simpson’s makeover, as a black man in a white world, is not unique. Prosecutor Marcia Clark, a woman in a man‘s world, also was recently made over to “soften her image.”

“It’s what the New York Times called the ‘motherization’ of Marcia Clark,” said Ferguson. “Instead of looking grim and dark, she now talks about her children and how much she enjoys shopping. For Marcia Clark to win her case she must become the archetypical female.”

Along with race and gender, class plays an obvious role in the OJ Simpson drama. Ferguson contrasted the treatment of OJ Simpson with that of Rodney King, “... a loser who had a real freeway chase, not the stately escort OJ got to his Bel-Air mansion.”  While the media creates a spectacle around OJ Simpson, other issues like high black unemployment, a disproportionate incarceration rate, police brutality and racism remain issues “we are asked to look away from.”

Violence is as American as cherry pie

UMass Afro-American studies professor Bill Strickland expanded on the political context of the Simpson case. U.S. military interventions from Vietnam to Iraq and the genocide against Native Americans were cited as examples of using violence to solve problems. “It’s what prompted Rap Brown to say, ‘Violence is as American as cherry pie’,” said Strickland. “Killing people is a fundamental means of dealing with problems. In that sense OJ may be the most American of all of us—if he’s guilty.”

Strickland contends that OJ was never a hero to blacks. “Only when the issue of the racist cop was brought up did blacks support OJ. He was a hero to white America because the media made him colorless. His colorlessness is what made him human.” In this sense the Simpson case is significant because his perceived guilt would represent a betrayal. “Whites think, ‘If our good Negro can become a Frankenstein, who can you trust?’ ”          

But OJ is in a position to buy some trust. “OJ can spend $5 million in his defense, so we can see the class nature of the entire system,” said Strickland. “If OJ were Rodney King being tried for killing two white people he’d be getting his head shaved and the gas pellets would be dropped on his ass.”

Yet Strickland also contends that blacks’ support for Simpson is not just the result of images, but experience. “The Simpson case raises the question of the relationship of blacks to police departments in the land. We saw that the police falsified reports in the Rodney King case. If you say, ‘the cops framed him,’ we say, ‘yeh, that’s entirely true.’”

The reality of the legal system

While not discounting the history of blacks’ experience with the police or the class and gender aspects of the Simpson case, panelist Lamar Sims offered his opinion of the true bottom line. “The media did not cut Ronald Goldman,” Sims said. “Race did not almost cut off Nicole Simpson’s head. Someone did and our perspective in law enforcement is ‘Who did it?’ and ‘Will they be held responsible?’”

Sims was not concerned with the media’s over-coverage of the case. “The media’s job is to sell time, to sell newspapers.” He also said the makeover of Marcia Clark was just part of the reality of the legal system. “Trial lawyers have a little guidebook that says to wear brown to warm up to the jury and to wear black or blue when you want to appear authoritarian,” Sims said. “So Clark’s changes don’t surprise me.”

The story of race and class and how they impact our lives

Responding to an audience question about whether the case would receive the same interest if the victim had been OJ’s first wife, who is black, UMAss professor Jhally responded: “If Nicole Simpson was not white and blond, this would not play out the same way, because of how our society says that black women don’t matter.

With its aspects of celebrity, interracial relationship, brutal violence, and the image of the fallen “hero,” the OJ Simpson tragedy holds our fascination.  “It feeds into something that people are deeply invested in,” said Jhally.  “The media didn’t just create the interest in this case but feeds off it.  What will come out of this is to add to the story of race and class and how they impact our lives.”

Whether justice will be served for OJ, or for Ronald Goldman, Nicole Brown Simpson and their families remains an open question.

October 1994

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