Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of numerous books about race in America, including Is Bill Cosby Right?, an analysis of the comedian's recent criticism of the African American community. In this interview, Dyson explains the divergent ways in which whites and blacks saw the Simpson trial and argues that it was the prosecution, and not the defense, who first played the "race card." He also explores the possibility that the jury's verdict was, in part, a form of "payback," but explains that the case was not just about O.J. but about generations of black men unfairly prosecuted by the justice system. "I think that what white America failed to realize with the quick jury deliberation, [was that] black people had been deliberating far longer than the O.J. Simpson case" says Dyson. "So the quickness appeared in the case, but it took about 250 years to come up with that jury verdict." This interview was conducted on March 21, 2005.
How important was the O.J. trial?
Well, the O.J. debacle of a decade ago was extraordinarily important for race relations in America. I think it was a racial earthquake, so to speak; a race quake. It didn't create racial tension; rather, it revealed the fault lines of bigotry and bias that trace beneath our common lives together. But it did reveal to white and black America that, first of all, we see things enormously differently. There is contrasting and almost contradictory viewpoints that animate black people and white people around the issue of race, and O.J. revealed that in the sharpest of terms. ...
How did African Americans view the trial?
Obviously, when you think about many of the African Americans who were on the jury, I think they reflected the viewpoint of many African Americans in the broader culture, and that was it's not that we couldn't conceive that O.J. would be guilty; the question is, one, can you legally prove that the man did what was claimed that he did?; two, did the prosecution make a compelling case to substantiate their claim that Mr. Simpson was guilty?; and three, there's a difference between being innocent and not guilty.
So black people are not naive enough to think that the proof or the lack of proof of guilt suggests that somebody is innocent. It means that the prosecution didn't meet its burden of proof -- to prove the guilt of Mr. Simpson. So black people believed, when they looked at that racism of Mr. [Mark] Fuhrman and his promiscuous use of the "n" word, when they looked at the history of justice being doled out to African American people in L.A. and the refusal of the police system to reform itself, especially under Daryl Gates, who infamously headed the LAPD -- when you put all that stuff together, there's no question that black people saw the O.J. Simpson case through the lens of race, and that lens had been colored by their immediate experience, and the texture of their lives certainly influenced what they understood was happening in the O.J. Simpson case.
If O.J. had been a white man, or Nicole [Brown Simpson] had been a black woman?
Well, if we change the facts of the case, if O.J. Simpson were a white man -- say if he were Robert Blake -- and Nicole was a black woman, to be sure it would have been an enormously different outcome. First of all, we wouldn't have had the cultural brouhaha. It's not that had Mr. Simpson been a white man and Nicole been a black woman that there wouldn't have been enormous interest by the media, but given the history of race in America, there's a strange dynamism between a black man and a white woman.
We saw it more recently with the Kobe Bryant incident. And I think the O.J. Simpson case reaffirmed the reality in America that interracial sexuality between black men and white women specifically harkens back to D.W. Griffith and 1915['s] Birth of a Nation, where it was socially put forth in that film that black men are marauding, peripatetic phalluses with a desire for their denied object: white women. So seeking to inseminate white women, seeking to rape them, is a major narrative that is a strong undercurrent in the story of American race relations. O.J. fit into that pattern. Nicole was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, voluptuous white woman that was the ideal representation of beauty in America. O.J. Simpson was a thickly muscled, legendary celebrity who played football and who gained a powerful position in the pantheon of American heroes. So when you put that stuff together, it's enormously chaotic, and it's enormously controversial.
But at the same time, the death of a white woman ranks higher in American society than does the death of a woman of color. On the same day that O.J. was alleged to have murdered Ron [Goldman] and Nicole, there was a black woman thrown to her death several stories down in a building in New York, and yet there was hardly any media mention of this heinous crime. And daily, women of color go to their deaths with equally vicious fashion, and yet they don't make the front page of the newspaper.
And yet O.J. wasn't really perceived as being black.
Well, there's no question that O.J. Simpson had been a substitute white man in America. He had gained honorary white status. He was not viewed by many white Americans as black. He was not seen as the African American athlete who was rebellious: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron. ... He was accepted in golf clubs that were very tony. He was accepted into the elite circles of white society. He fit in. He didn't raise a ruckus. He didn't make white people feel guilty for their historic legacy of slavery. He didn't point out white supremacy. He didn't talk about Jim Crow. He didn't talk about racial inequality. O.J. hardly spoke about race at all. He confessed himself, when he was in jail, that for the first time in many years, he was forced to confront his own racial reality and the fact that he was still a black man in America.
And white America dissented from their views about O.J. They left them behind once he was charged with murder. He was re-blackened. He was rechristened in his African American identity. He was dipped again in the healing water, some would say it, others would say the troubled waters of race, and once again he emerged full-fledged as a black man in America. ...
Why do you think the public had such strong feelings about the outcome of this case?
I think the O.J. Simpson case conjured all the paranoia, the racial anxiety, but also the racial fatigue that America has endured over the last half century. After all, O.J. was the ideal type character from central casting. If we're going to get a black guy who will conjure empathy and yet produce controversy about race in America, he's got to be a black guy whom white people love and that black people in the past have identified with and at least respected. So his exploits on the athletic gridiron gave him a sense of cachet in black America and white America. His refusal to provoke issues of racial consideration gave him carte blanche, so to speak, in white America. Here was the ideal guy.
Only a guy like O.J. could both appeal to black and whites to see race in a specific fashion. And the reason we invested so much passion in this is because black people had for years been trying to say to white America: "The justice system is broken; you've got to fix it. Here's our best chance to tell that story with a guy that in the past you've been sympathetic to. You'll never hear it with a person for whom you have no sympathy, but you'll hear it in the case of O.J. as much as you're willing to hear it."
Many white people believed: "Look, we're going to show you that we are trusting, and we have reached a high plateau in race relations. We're going to treat O.J. like we treat any other white person in America. If he's guilty, we're going to send him to jail; if he's innocent, we'll let him go." So he was the ideal person to bring out these contrasting viewpoints, but it all broke down.
Broke down how?
Well, it broke down because O.J. refused to follow suit, and black America refused to follow the script, and white America then saw that all bets were off.
O.J. refused to follow through because he claimed his blackness again in a way that was troubling to many white Americans: "Wait a minute, O.J. You haven't talked about blackness in our circles for years, indeed for decades. You've never made us feel uncomfortable about the issue of race. All of a sudden now you're claiming your allegiance to black people. You're identifying publicly with black people."
Black people themselves had to squeeze and squirm. They had to re-inscribe O.J. into the black narrative. They had to baptize him again into the community; they had to accept him. Black people are typically, if you're willing to say you're sorry, always [willing to welcome you back] with open arms: "Come on back home, Michael Jackson. Come on back home, Kobe Bryant. Come on back home, O.J. Simpson."
And then white America said: "Well, wait a minute. We had granted you honorary status, which means you have to play by our rules. You have to accept the reality that race doesn't exist. But now you're saying it exists. You have to accept the reality that race no longer is hugely significant, and it no longer rules America. But now you're saying it does. Well, if you say it does, then we're going to go back to our ways as well." All bets were off with O.J.'s acquittal.
Most liberals thought that by the 1990s, race was no longer much of an issue, but with the O.J. trial, race was suddenly front and center. Was that hard for them to accept?
Sure. Especially for white liberals in the O.J. Simpson case, it was even much more difficult. Right-wingers or conservative brothers and sisters in America who happen to be white perhaps had concluded from the very beginning that O.J. was likely to have committed the crime, whereas white liberals were willing to suspend judgment until such point it was proved in the court of law.
But also, what was revealed was this kind of liberal white racism, which we're not used to talking about. We're used to talking about conservative white racism. We're used to speaking about right-wing white racism, but even commentators like Gloria Steinem, the remarkably formidable and heroic defender of women's rights in America, went on The Charlie Rose Show and was outraged that black people might deem O.J. innocent, not understanding that it wasn't simply about the fact that race trumped gender; that the concern over race outweighed the concern over whether or not O.J. abused his wife. What she failed to understand is that as a white privileged woman in America, she benefits from her white skin -- even as a white woman -- in ways that black people don't in general, and specifically black women don't. So I think that white liberal guilt and white racism have never been sharply attacked in this country, and they came out in the O.J. Simpson case. ...
One of the reasons we can point to to suggest why this was such a powerful case is because so many people had staked their lives on believing the world operated in a certain fashion, and O.J. came along to challenge it. O.J., in the technical lingo, provided a paradigm shift. ... O.J. forced a new theory about how the racial world operates, and many white people had not been used to thinking about that.
What was the new theory?
Well, the paradigm that prevailed was that race is a deck of cards, and that people arbitrarily or willy-nilly pull out a race card at their discretion to be able to put it down on the table to defend themselves or to cut through and do something distorted. Well, O.J. proved that "Wait a minute, there's no such thing as a race card being played by black people not already dealing with the race deck that white America has put on the table."
So maybe the metaphor of race as a deck of cards doesn't work. Maybe you have to have a new paradigm, because Johnnie Cochran, the great lawyer for the O.J. Simpson case, proved that when he spoke about race, all of a sudden he was dealing with the race card. No, the race card was there the moment the prosecution chose Christopher Darden as a member of the prosecution team. The race card was being played the moment [prosecuting attorney] Marcia Clark chose the jury based upon what she would think would sail with black women, who would feel offended that a black man had murdered this woman. So the race card was already being played, but white America refused to see it. That's what came out in the O.J. Simpson case.
So the race card was connected to Johnnie Cochran?
Well, ... the prosecution tried to pretend, and commentators in America tried to pretend, many of whom were white, that Mr. Cochran is the one who deleteriously played the race card and that O.J. Simpson venomously appealed to racial passion. No. Race was thick in the O.J. Simpson case from the very beginning, but it wasn't evident. And I think the O.J. Simpson case revealed that there is subtle race, and there is sophisticated race, and there's evident and observable race. The undercurrents of race often go by without being witnessed, but in the O.J. Simpson case, they were exposed for everybody to see.
But wasn't O.J.'s money more important than his race in getting an acquittal?
Well, that's a very powerful point, to suggest in America that a black person actually has the wherewithal to defend him -- or herself when the government says you are wrong. We expect Martha Stewart to have billions; we expect the people from Enron to have money, massive lawyers to detail their being injured by the state, but not a black person -- not even a black person who has worked for 25 and 30 years as a legend, or at least a visible celebrity in America. How dare he have the means to protect himself. And how dare he suggest that the criminal justice system has been racially corrupt from the beginning. And how dare he, a rich man, become a symbolic representative for millions of black people who don't have cash or visibility but whose lives are similarly assaulted but without the ability to say so.
So O.J. Simpson, whether he wanted to or not, became a representative. And often for black people, we don't get a chance to choose those who end up symbolizing us. We had tried to get a 747 to represent us -- Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte -- but lo and behold, a broke-down, rickety old secondhand car named the O.J. Simpson case became the carrier of our dreams. And so many black people invested in that broken-down car because that was going to get the message across.
Doesn't that depress you?
It's very depressing that some of the most eloquent, brilliant, insightful figures in America who have happened to be African American, or for that matter white or Latino or Native American or Arab or from across the ethnic and racial spectrum, have tried to discuss race in empowering and enlightening fashion, but their words have for the most part fallen on hardened ground. But O.J. Simpson cut right to the matter. O.J. Simpson dug a deep wound in the collective psyche of America and planted the information that America had been trying to repress for most of its history. And now, in the face of O.J., it couldn't avoid it. So yeah, it's kind of depressing in that sense, because O.J. was not necessarily the best vehicle to discuss the subtle nuances and the complex images of race that we need to deal with if we're going to have a complete and complex understanding of how race operates in America.
Was race the most important force at work in this case?
Well, when one thinks about the O.J. Simpson case, race is the most evident and observable and obvious difference. But there were many other differences tracing beneath: one, the level of celebrity in America -- that if you're a celebrity and you've got face recognition and you've got high visibility, you're just simply going to get a different brand of justice than the average Joe Schmo.
Number two, I think issues of gender were extraordinarily important in this case; that is to say that women, who often don't receive a fair brand of justice in America, had hoped that with this O.J. Simpson case that that issue could come to the fore. Unfortunately, I think many women who were white didn't understand the degree to which their black or brown or red or yellow sisters don't often receive the same kind of notoriety or infamy that Nicole Simpson did in order to get their cases heard and broadcast.
Number three, the issue of gender justice in America certainly is not high, and yet it did get some hearing in the O.J. Simpson case. We know that there are thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of women who daily toil under the brutal oppression of sexism or misogyny or other forms of sexual assault, whose cases are never heard, whose voices are never listened to and whose bodies are mangled and maimed, and yet we don't see them. So in that sense, there were many issues that were converging in the O.J. Simpson case. Race was the most evident face of it, but the body of consideration was much broader.
What if it had been O.J.'s first wife, a black woman, who was murdered and not his second wife?
Well, when one thinks about the fact that had O.J. been married to a black woman -- of course, his first wife, Marguerite, was a black woman -- and allegedly Mr. Simpson engaged in some domestic violence with her, but the reality is that the body of a black woman doesn't rank as high on the totem pole of social consideration as does a white woman.
Even within the black community?
Well, certainly in the black community there's consideration for the black female. ... On the other hand, there's tremendous gender injustice in black communities, where women's bodies just don't count as much as men's bodies. If Mike Tyson is accused of raping Desiree Washington, many black people rally around him. When Mike Tyson was accused of biting the ear of Evander Holyfield, it was seen as outrageous. So the ear of a black man counts more than the body of a black woman. That's in black communities as well, so I think that there's no question that the gender imbalance is very powerful here as well.
What do you think about the accusation that it was the prosecution who initially introduced the issue of race into the trial?
Yes, well, I think the prosecution from the very beginning used race. Marcia Clark admits that she stacked that jury with black women because she felt that black women would be sympathetic to Nicole, who is a battered woman, especially since, as Marcia Clark understood, so many black women had been abused.
But what she failed to anticipate was that so many of those abused black women had never received the consideration from white women like Marcia Clark. So she didn't anticipate the kind of resentment of a white woman, Marcia Clark, now trying to manipulate race and gender to defend her point of view while not being sympathetic to O.J., and the way in which these black women understood that they're going to be discriminated against first, because they're black, not because they're female, or at least they're going to receive an equal amount of bias and bigotry for their race as for their gender. And so in that sense, Marcia Clark was playing the race card from the very beginning.
When Christopher Darden pretended and feigned as if he were outraged that the use of the "n" word would so indelibly be inscribed on the brains of the jury that they could never overcome hearing that word because it's associated with Mark Fuhrman, come on. This is the use of the race card as well. This is the manipulation of racial passion as well.
Was Darden right about the power of the "n" word?
No, because to believe Mr. Darden's notion that black communities would have been outraged or at least incapable of recovering from that epithet is to deny what black people feel on a daily basis. Black people hear that word on a daily basis. Black people are assaulted with that word in far more common fashion than we are willing to acknowledge in America.
So Mr. Darden again was doing some racial gerrymandering there, trying to use his own color as a badge of invulnerability to the judge and to the jury. He was trying to say, "Look, I'm a real black man, too." But in the stakes of the real black man, he got trumped by Johnnie Cochran. Johnnie Cochran brilliantly deployed the notion of authentic black man in a way that Christopher Darden never had access to. ...
How do you explain the apparent joy many African Americans felt about the verdict?
Yes, well, Johnnie Cochran should be accorded an enormous share of responsibility for the utter ecstasy that many black people expressed on that day when the verdict came down. But one mustn't gainsay or underestimate the fact that it could have been a by rote lawyer standing up there, simply by the numbers, and had that verdict come down, there still would have been enormous jubilation because it is exactly this case: "We did it by playing by your rules, playing the game the way you said we should play it, and now that the verdict has gone against you for what you perceive to be the first time in a major case, you want the rules changed. Slow down. These are your rules." As they say in the ghetto, "Don't hate the player; hate the game." If you don't like the rules, then change the game itself; don't be mad at the player like Johnnie Cochran.
Many white people were upset with Johnnie Cochran, outraged at Johnnie Cochran. Why be upset with Johnnie? He's taking your rules, playing by them, and he won. And that's why black people were so happy, I would suggest, that day.
Why? Because so many innocent black men had been condemned by a system that had set many guilty white men free?
Well, yes. There's no question that O.J. got the benefit of all of the righteous anger that black people had over righteous cases where we knew that a white guy like Byron De La Beckwith, who was eventually charged with murdering Medgar Evers, had gotten away with murder, which is why black people said to white America: "You can't be simply upset that somebody got away with murder, because then you'd be concerned about the four little girls who got blown up in the church in Birmingham, [Ala.]. You'd be concerned about Medgar Evers' murderer, who was going around bragging that he had killed him. So if you're upset, be upset at that. You can't be upset at O.J. He's not the first person to get away with murder." ...
So a hidden message in that was: "See, this is what we've been saying all along, white America, that even when you said that the rules were being played by, you knew [the system] was immoral. ... So now you need to re-examine the legal system to see if it can be improved, and if it can be improved, it should help black people as well." ...
But did the African Americans rejoicing at O.J.'s acquittal really believe he was innocent?
Absolutely not. I don't think we should make the mistake of believing that black people who celebrated a) thought O.J. was innocent, or b) were even concerned most about O.J. as opposed to their Uncle Charlie or Bubba or their sister Shanaynay or their Aunt Jackie, who had been screwed by a system that never paid attention to them.
Again, O.J. was beyond his body. "O.J." was a term that represented every black person that got beat up by the criminal justice system, and now we have found some vindication, and guess what, white America? It was with a black man that you loved. It was with a black man that you said was better than us. It was with a black man that you said wasn't like us. He was different than we are. He wasn't a troublemaker. He didn't cause racial consternation, or he wasn't controversial. Ha, ha, ha. The very guy you thought was so perfect turns out to be the one who turned the tables on you. That was a delicious irony of the victory as well.
So it was payback of a sort?
It wasn't on its face bawdily payback, but yes, there was a sense of the vindication and justification. There was a sense of "You know what? We've been trying to tell you this for a long time, and you have not awakened." So much less than revenge or payback, it was a kind of wakeup call to white America: This is what we have been dealing with, and now how do you feel? Multiply it a million times. Then you'll begin to understand how we feel. So it's "Let's let them stew in this just a little bit to understand just how messed up, how terrible, how awful we felt after justice was not given to us and after a verdict came down that we knew was wrong." ...
What about jury nullification? Was it possible that the jury knowingly set free a guilty man in order to send a message?
... Well, if that's the case, let's just even grant the benefit of the doubt that the term is legitimate and applies to the behavior of people, then my God, white juries have been practicing jury nullification forever. If that's the case, how do you account for the fact [of the] kangaroo court where Emmett Till's murderers were attempted to be brought to justice, and everybody there knew they were guilty, and yet they were not convicted? That was jury nullification.
The history of white practices toward black people has been a history of jury nullification. So again, spare me the acrimony and outrage, because you've never had that kind of acrimony and outrage for millions of black people who have been subjected to ridiculous levels of nullification by white juries for the history of this country.
Were whites angry because the jury deliberation was so short?
Well, I think that what white America failed to realize with that quick jury deliberation, black people had been deliberating far longer than the O.J. Simpson case; that similar cases had taken place in America, not with equal celebrity, not with equal acrimony because of the introduction of sex and gender into the case, but in clear instances, where black people were innocent and yet white juries failed to find them innocent, or they were not guilty and white juries found them guilty.
Black people have been collectively deliberating for a long time, and if what I say is true, that O.J. was bigger than his body, so was this case, and the jury was dealing with unavoidably the influence of that history of injustice toward black people. So the quickness appeared in the O.J. Simpson case, but it took about 250 years to come up with that jury verdict.
Was there no other likely outcome for this trial?
I think most black people sitting on that jury would have voted similarly. Even if they felt in their hearts that Mr. Simpson was guilty, they knew that the prosecution was so contaminated with so many extraneous biases and bigotries that there was no way that they could reasonably conclude that the prosecution a) had met its burden of proof, and b) that they had proved that Mr. Simpson was guilty.
How much did the outcome of the trial have to do with the Los Angeles of the 1990s?
Well, when one thinks about what occurred, one remembers the social context of race in L.A. in the late '80s and early '90s. Daryl Gates had been at the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department, and he was notoriously indifferent at best to the interests of African American people, and some claimed at worst to be callous and racist in his treatment of black people, and certainly [in] his refusal to respond to the outrage of black people about police brutality.
Furthermore, Rodney King was a symptom of Mr. Gates' out-of-control police department. Here is a black man being pummeled by four white policemen, who when they go to trial are found to be not guilty. And then the Rampart division in the LAPD proved to be so corrupt in the meting out and doling out of justice, especially cops lying and fabricating evidence in regard to black and Latino defendants. When you put all that stuff together, there was a powder keg of controversy waiting to blow up and explode. What happened in that case was symbolic of the enormous racial tension that occurred in L.A. during that time.
So it wasn't surprising that evidence in the Simpson case was contaminated given the history of the LAPD?
What is surprising is that many white people were surprised. What is remarkable is that many white people were caught off guard. [They were] not listening to [the lyrics from the N.W.A. song]: "Fuck tha police/ Coming straight from the underground./ Young brother [sic] got it bad 'cause I'm brown/ And not the other color so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority." That's a rap song [from] 1988, '89. And you're surprised? Right in L.A. they're making rap songs about this several years before the Rodney King situation. ...
So I think what was remarkable to many African American people is that so many white people were racially naive. They were like ostriches putting their heads in the sand ... symbolically sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that the world of racial acrimony didn't exist. Again, this is why the O.J. Simpson case revealed the fault lines that trace beneath our common lives together. It was a race quake that opened the eyes of white people to the reality that black people confront on a daily basis. ...
Is there any point in revisiting this case now, 10 years later?
Many people think that 10 years later, why are we looking at O.J.? What's the big deal? Many white people have written him off as a pariah. Many black people have seen that O.J. came to a black restaurant or two after he got out, and now he's playing golf for most of his life. He's irrelevant to black and white people.
And yet it is important 10 years later to see just why we were so invested on both sides. And I think both sides need to rethink their jubilance or their acrimony and hostility. Black people had to deny the fact that O.J. hadn't been black for a long time, and white people had to lie about the fact that O.J. wasn't black and had been a substitute white guy; they granted him honorary status. So both sides had to juggle and fiddle and fudge with O.J. because he was such an imperfect, perfect carrier for the aspirations of white and black America, which is why he's so important, which is why a figure like that continues to arrest our attention, because he is and remains hugely controversial precisely because he failed on the black side to tell the truth about black identity, and on the white side finally he failed to fully fit in. That's the perfect example of what race can do and mean in America. ...