Sam Sommers continues to write super situationist posts over on the Psychology Today blog. Here are excerpts from his recent post, titled “Whither O.J.?,” offering his reflections on reactions to the O.J. Simpson trials.
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Today’s the day that O.J. Simpson finds out his prison sentence for his recent convictions for kidnapping, armed robbery, and assault. In many respects, it will be the final chapter in a sociolegal drama that has been going on for close to 15 years now, dating back to his criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.
There is many a question this saga might inspire in the curious behavioral scientist: How much of a role did Simpson’s past play in his current treatment by a Nevada jury and sentencing judge? How are those Americans who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal in 1995 reacting to his recent legal problems? . . . And so on.
To me, though, the issue that has always intrigued me the most about the Simpson matter is this: there is no easier way to stir up agitation among White people than to simply utter his name.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to get riled up about when it comes to O.J. I was privy to different and additional information than were the jurors in his trial, but there is little doubt in my mind that he committed the homicides in question. And it’s easy to see how much of the general public would look scornfully upon a man whom they believed to have been the perpetrator of such crimes. Even more so given that he escaped prison time for their commission.
For that matter, even were you to be one who reserves judgment on Simpson’s culpability for the murders (or think that he was flat-out innocent), there’s still ample reason to find him reprehensible. There’s no doubt that he was a perpetrator of domestic assault, and that’s surely sufficient grounds for harboring antipathy towards him.
That said, I’d still argue that the response of much of White America to Simpson has been, and continues to be disproportionate. Yes, I, too, believe that he is a murderer who ultimately got away with his crime. But where’s the comparable outrage at the acquittal of Robert Blake? Or the jury that failed to convict Phil Spector in his first trial?
OK, so the circumstances aren’t identical in any of these cases–they never are when such comparisons are needed (which is why studying issues like legal decision-making using experimental methodology can be so important, but that’s a topic for another entry). But in each case, we’re talking about past-their-prime B-list celebrities who owe a great deal of their continued freedom to the money that allowed them to hire in-their-prime A-list attorneys.
The difference is that Simpson has come to stand for something more. For much of White America, Simpson’s acquittal at the hands of a predominantly-Black jury has come to stand as the prototypical example of “reverse racism” in the modern era. The images of African-Americans celebrating his acquittal serve to epitomize for many Whites all that they believe has gone awry with race relations in this country.
Perceptions of the O.J. trial–or, perhaps more accurately, perceptions of how Black America perceived the trial–even bubbled to the surface as a litmus test for some White voters during the Democratic primaries in Iowa. Just a few months later, Barack Obama went out of his way to assert his own belief in Simpson’s guilt, and his own displeasure with how many Blacks reacted to the acquittal.
The rest of Obama’s discussion of this matter is similarly revealing. He puts forth a hypothesis that I’ve often offered myself in many a conversation–of varieties both watercooler and academic–concerning the trial: many who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal didn’t necessarily believe that he was innocent. Much of their celebration came from the realization that for many years only rich, White guys were able to climb off the hook for crimes they had committed. Now a rich, Black guy was able to do the same.
Because when you think about it, if you put the media circus aside, Simpson’s acquittal owed far more to his wealth than his race. . . .
Yet there he remains, Public Enemy #1, O. J. Simpson. Worthy of our denunciation? Sure. Perpetrator of acts that merit contempt? Absolutely. But how did he ascend so quickly to the top of this mountain of notoriety, climbing over so many miscreants and barbarians to get there? Because he became the symbol of racial discontent for much of White America; he grew to represent something far bigger than the sum of his personality or the specifics of his actions. Ask yourself where the comparable outrage is for the others who have gotten away with murder over the years. Ask yourself why there’s no easier way to get White people seeing red than simply mentioning his name.
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To read his entire post (with links), click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Legal Situation of Race Equality – Abstract,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”