Continuing my reflections on the “I” and the “We”, I’d like to expand on my motivations for drawing this distinction and what, independent of our current political climate, inspired it. Several weeks ago I was walking uphill from my apartment to the university campus where I am a student. On any given day I am either blasting CHVRCHES through my headphones or ruminating over the proper benchmarks of political and cultural history, and that day it was the latter. I was specifically reflecting on an earlier post I’d written about The Age of Reform, and how my affection for Hofstadter’s narrative sweep contrasted with my reading of New Left historians, queer theorists, and other contemporary cultural critics. I remember being ambivalent about this as I formally introduced myself to a cashier, who recognized me and had remembered my ordinary lunch order (avocado toast with poached egg) but didn’t know my name. I stood in line, waiting for the egg to get poached and the toast to be properly slathered in avocado and for some reconciliation between “consensus” American history and post-structuralism to present itself to me. I sat down at a small table of polished beech wood that would have been at home in an Apple store, and decided that this opposition boiled down to a debate over whether America was always already itself or was always trying to become something other than itself. A decorative slice of orange framed the toast. It’s always divided into two sides, one with the avocado and the other with the egg, and I started with the egg side this time, and noticed an Asian undergraduate student sitting across from me at the same moment I bit into it. The roof of my mouth burned, and I realized I should have started with the avocado part and let the egg cool down first. This was the first thing that had happened that day that was unusual. Somehow, out of this moment, it occurred to me that these two positions were themselves the answer to the problem, and the I—We distinction was born.
I need this levity to introduce my reflections here on what a pure “I” culture, as existed during the post-60s Age of Identity, looks like at its absolute worst and most suffocating. I decided to expose myself to a historical event of which I have childhood memories: the televised O.J. Simpson murder trial. Its tragedy was not, as I remembered it, about race. It was how the color line had so thoroughly warped our sense of justice, history, and fame.
Made in America is perhaps the most compelling documentary I’ve ever seen, less encyclopedic than Eyes on the Prize yet oddly appropriate as a thematic sequel. Its brilliance lies in its willingness to subject the O.J. trial to sustained historical and sociological analysis, to point out that O.J.’s rise in Los Angeles as the only prominent black athlete to not make a point of his race was tragically interpreted by contemporaries as redeeming the Watts riots and the Rodney King video and the decades of racial abuse perpetrated by the LAPD. O.J. was the great success story, the Horatio Alger of the black community, who publicly didn’t call himself black and who privately laughed with acquaintances who observed how strange it was that, at bars, he was expected to “associate with ****ers”. The documentary brilliantly portrays O.J. Simpson as a true American sociopath, indeed as sociopathy in an American register. It does this so well that I could not help but similarly reflect on Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, other contemporary “black” celebrities and distinctively American geniuses who could all but cross the color line, at the price of segregating their own souls, and at the cost of innocent women and children.
The O.J. trial went on for even longer than what happened in the courtroom. It was arguably decided during the infamous “low speech car chase” on the highway back to the Simpson compound, when the police called his cell phone (it is somehow strange to know there were cell phones even back then) to tell him that “people don’t want to see The Juice like this,” i.e. suicidal. Or even earlier when he was brought in the day after the murders, briefly held and questioned by the police, only to be let go—because he’s The Juice. Or even earlier, when his team won the Heisman in 1968. The ugly, nauseating fact of the matter is that The Juice was not the kind of person who could credibly be found guilty or innocent of a crime with the gravity of double homicide, because the integrity of our national culture would have been compromised. Our narrative of post-60s race relations would have to be discarded. Were that not the case, it would have been possible for the trial to take less than fifteen months, for it to have been watched by fewer than 100 million people, and for one man to have been put on trial rather than the second largest city in the country. Why did this happen?
What struck me was less the brazenness of the defense than the fecklessness of the prosecutors, whose black representative competed for media attention with Johnny Cochran, insisted on asking O.J. to try on the bloody gloves from the crime scene, and who looked personally destroyed by the trial’s outcome. As one interviewee observed, in another timeline he could have ended up at Cochran’s own law firm, rather than looking like an Uncle Tom.
I found myself expecting the trial to have been some clumsy caricature of race relations standing in for murder charges—that O.J.’s conviction would have meant to find yet another innocent black man guilty, or for his innocence to mean that black celebrities somehow get special treatment. Clarence Thomas had already demonstrated in 1991 that race could be used not just to exonerate but to extricate oneself from the entire process of judicial scrutiny—that race could be used as a wild card. No, what made the O.J. trial an authentic and singular American tragedy was the way the color line infected every level of the process, from jury selection to the judge’s deliberations (why was the jury allowed to take a tour of O.J.’s private residence, away from the crime scene?) to prosecutors’ self-neutering to public reactions to the decision, which farcically mirrored the outcry over the Rodney King video four years prior.
Simpson did not bother me. Strangely, I found myself feeling sorry for him, sorry for his emptiness and rage and Olympian ability to compartmentalize his own suffering and loneliness. What sickened me, so much so that I gagged and retched, was the behavior and statements of the whites tasked with witnessing or litigating or arguing the trial. It was Robert Kardashian, a friend of Simpson, a member of his defense team, and father of the children who would give us Keeping up with the Kardashians, a show whose announcement Simpson gleefully watched on a hotel room television immediately before attempting armed robbery in 2007, a crime that would finally send him to jail. It was Nicole Simpson’s father, a man whose eyes somehow already conveyed that he would never recover from her death, asked on camera by reporters to compare the racial beliefs of Adolf Hitler and Mark Fuhrman, whose testimony was key to the prosecution. It was the faces of white pedestrians across the country, taunted by blacks in innumerable photos taken the day of the decision, that showed not pity nor compassion nor sorrow but disbelief and revulsion.
Words like “absurdity” and “irony” are not big enough for this witches’ brew of celebrity, race relations, and inequality. I am not sure I can think of one now. What the trial demonstrated forcefully was the way the fallout of the Civil Rights Movement had traded true racial reconciliation for a mere vision of it, for spectacle. This was driven home for me by the tacit admission that O.J.’s innocence was payback for the acquittal of Rodney King’s beaters—in the minds of O.J.’s jurors, that spectacle demanded another in kind. To borrow the language of my previous post, it was literally an “I” for an “I”.
Re-witnessing the trial’s outcome reminded me of my coauthor’s dissection of liberals’ favorite hobbyhorse: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That statement, while not fallacious, betrays an emotional need to spectate a righteousness one cannot fully inhabit. It treats history as a spectacle, and therefore oneself as a spectator, an “I” for whom the drama’s conclusion does not depend on everyone playing a role assigned by history to them. In other words it is not a sensuous statement, and true reconciliation must be sensuous. In life and in race relations, it’s a lot easier to put on a new pair of glasses than to undergo eye surgery, though technically—and tragically—it makes no difference to the spectator.
What stays with me about my deep dive into the Simpson trial is a sense of cosmic misapprehension, the sheer waste of human life, and emotion, and struggle that went into exonerating a man who was clearly responsible in order to preserve any imagined sense of racial justice, the shamelessness of O.J. portraying himself as a post-racial athlete yet ultimately relying on his race to get off scot-free.
The term “race relations” is telling. I used to think it narrowly referred to the need for a healthy civic culture including both whites and blacks, and whether they could face each other in public or private as equals. I now recognize that it means something more disconcerting and metaphysical, that the categories that comprise our civic culture—money, fame, sex, crime, politics—are somehow the product of race, in some ways obvious, others mysterious. The relations between these things have to change if we are to make headway on the race problem.
We are still working through this. Race is always on display, if you are primed to see it for what it is. It was even there during the Kavanaugh hearing, courtesy of Lindsay Graham: “You’re supposed to be Bill Cosby when you’re a junior and senior in high school, and all of a sudden you’ve got over it…Here’s my understanding: if you’ve lived a good life, people will recognize it.”
It says something about our culture and how little it has changed since the Simpson trial that, of all the parodies and dismissals of Graham’s behavior at that hearing, he could still say this without anyone batting an eye. Racial otherness may be unavoidable in a country as multifarious as ours, but the color line is a problem because it shapes our sense of who, or what behavior, is redeemable in the eyes of certain people, and what isn’t, and how such redemption might be earned. As long as the “I” sets the agenda, the people who bear the cost of that redemption don’t even need to be on trial for the spectacle to transpire.