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O.J. murder case put race in America on trial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

O.J. Simpson was more than a football star, more than a pop culture icon or a defendant acquitted of murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEIDRE ROBERTSON: We, the jury, in the above entitled action find the defendant Orenthal James Simpson not guilty of the crime of murder.

SHAPIRO: He became a symbol of America's complicated relationship to race, celebrity and justice. His family announced that he died of cancer Wednesday at age 76. To talk about the contradictions in O.J. Simpson's life and what he revealed about this country, we've called sportswriter Dave Zirin. Thanks for being here.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, hey. Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Let's begin with a moment when O.J. Simpson was near the height of his influence. He had been a huge celebrity on the football field, and this was an ad he made for Hertz in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

O J SIMPSON: Nobody has more of what it takes to get you into a new LTD or other fine car faster.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Hertz.

SHAPIRO: At that point, what did he represent? What did people see when they looked at and talked about him?

ZIRIN: I mean, O.J. Simpson represented a kind of post-racialism in commercial culture in the United States. His appearance in those Hertz commercials was something we really hadn't seen before, which is a prominent Black American spokesperson for a major national company attempting to have a national appeal to consumers across the country. That made O.J. different. And in a lot of ways, it was the culmination of something that O.J. had been saying since his early days in the NFL, which was when he was asked about what his feelings were about issues like the civil rights movement, he would say, don't ask me that. I'm not Black. I'm O.J.

SHAPIRO: So he really not only embraced, but promoted that post-racial idea.

ZIRIN: It was an idea that, in his own mind, he linked to economic success. It was linked in his mind to actually being unshackled by racism, and it was linked in his mind to being a celebrity first and any sort of spokesperson for a cause second.

SHAPIRO: Well, in 1994, he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. The country watched this car chase in real time on television, the famous white Ford Bronco. How did that accusation of murder land in the culture?

ZIRIN: Well, it turned the United States into a giant Rorschach test immediately - what you thought about racism, about police violence, about gender, about corruption, about domestic abuse and about a two-tiered justice system that favors the wealthy and the famous. People had strong opinions and opposing opinions about all of these topics. So O.J., who always saw himself as this kind of figure of unity in the United States, all of a sudden became this figure of profound polarization, where what you said about O.J. and the case actually indicated what you believed about a whole host of other incendiary topics.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And if the accusation and trial became a Rorschach test, then the verdict was even more so. His acquittal divided the country down racial lines. What did we learn from that acquittal about the different ways that Americans viewed race?

ZIRIN: Well, it's interesting. If the trial was a Rorschach test, then the verdict became like an early form of a social media algorithm, obviously decades before social media, with people turning on each other instantaneously based upon what they felt the case said about the United States. And it was strongly divided among racial lines because in the Black community, when they looked at the trial, what they saw first and foremost was Los Angeles, with its own history of police corruption.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about that because the verdict had a lot to do with another famous case in Los Angeles involving a man named Rodney King, who was beaten by LA police in a traffic stop. So how did the King case factor into the Simpson case?

ZIRIN: Well, the King case and the LA uprising, LA riots that followed was only two years prior to the O.J. case, so still very fresh in the mind of Los Angelenos and people all around the United States. That's a very important point to remember. Also, people's lived experience, though, with corruption in the police force of LA, which later broke out grandly in the Ramparts corruption scandal, was also a part of how people were viewing the case. And it became something where people looked at the case; they saw police officers who engaged in actions or past commentaries that were racist, like police officer Mark Fuhrman's use of the N-word in a recording that was played in the trial. And it made people say, well, wait a minute. Maybe this isn't just about O.J. Maybe this is about a broader corruption among police and a broader racism in U.S. society, while a whole other side was saying, well, wait a minute. What about Nicole Brown Simpson? What about Ronald Goldman? Where is the justice for them?

SHAPIRO: And here we are nearly 30 years later, and people still ask me if I'm related to Robert Shapiro, who was one of the lawyers in the trial. I am not. There is now a band called White Ford Bronco. I mean, all these decades later, what is the legacy of that trial?

ZIRIN: Well, the legacy of the trial is an entire era of the United States. The legacy of the trial is division. The legacy of the trial is the recognition - if we didn't have it before, we certainly had it after the trial - that different people see this country in profoundly different ways, and speaking about a United States of America can be a pipe dream at times.

SHAPIRO: What do you see as O.J. Simpson's legacy?

ZIRIN: O.J. Simpson's legacy is as a Rorschach test for how people view the United States on a whole host of subjects, all of which are still deeply, deeply important to people today. And that's why the legacy lives on, because when we talk about these issues, we're also talking about the O.J. Simpson trial. And when we talk about the O.J. Simpson trial, we're talking about these issues.

SHAPIRO: David Zirin is sports editor at The Nation, and he writes the blog The Edge of Sports. Thank you so much.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "STEP BEYOND (FEAT. BILAL AND LAETITIA SADIER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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