Why America needs more 'O.J. Moments'

OJ Simpson trial verdict_00004010
OJ Simpson trial verdict_00004010


    Reactions as the O.J. Simpson verdict is read


Reactions as the O.J. Simpson verdict is read 05:32

(CNN)When people think of O.J. Simpson, many remember The Chase.

That's when Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings led police on a surreal slow-speed chase in a white Ford Bronco as crowds lined a Los Angeles freeway to cheer them on.
I think instead of The Moment.
It was a sunny autumn day on October 3, 1995, and I had gathered with others in an Atlanta food court to watch the Simpson verdict on TV. When it was announced, there was a squeal of delight from the African-Americans in the crowd. They high-fived one another and pumped their fists. But all the white people were shocked. Looks of anger and jaw-dropping disbelief flashed across their faces.
That's when I realized: So many Americans could look at the same event and absorb the same facts -- but come to totally different conclusions.
    We've been having more O.J. moments ever since. It's become the norm.
    On Thursday, Simpson won parole after serving nearly nine years of a nine-to-33-year sentence for kidnapping and armed robbery at a Las Vegas hotel. But Simpson, of course, is defined by another crime: his 1995 acquittal in the grisly murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
    Like many, I feel like I've overdosed on O.J. I'm tired of hearing the name. What more can be said about him? When I called a professor to discuss Simpson, her first reaction was an exasperated "Oh, Lord Jesus!"
    But I think there are still two small things O.J. can teach us about ourselves.
    One is how The Moment led to Other Moments. Before there was fake news, there was fake DNA, and other alternative facts surrounding Simpson's trial. Only two months ago, a police officer soberly informed me that Mexican drug dealers had set up Simpson for the slayings.
    Why am I still surprised by that? I shouldn't be -- we keep on having these O.J. moments.
    We do it with race.
    Notice how Donald Trump Jr. was described after he was criticized for meeting with a Russian lawyer and former Russian intelligence officer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. The 39-year-old son of the President was described as a naïve "kid," says Carol Anderson, author of "White Rage" and a professor of African-American studies at Atlanta's Emory University.
    Compare that to how a police dispatcher described Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black child who was shot to death in 2015 by Cleveland police. A man calling 911 described a "guy" pointing a gun at people. Others looking at the video saw a boy playing with a toy gun in a public park, Anderson says.
    "Donald Trump Jr. is described as a young kid and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was described as 21-year-old and threatening," Anderson says.
    We do it with gender.
    When a tape was released during the 2016 election of then-candidate Donald Trump making vulgar remarks, some saw a middle-aged white man bragging about sexually assaulting women -- while others saw a man engaging in some unwise but harmless locker room talk.
    Those kinds of gender clashes have migrated to popular culture. Anderson cites how fans reacted to the recent news that the next incarnation of the BBC's "Dr. Who" would be a woman instead of a man.
    "Think about the backlash," she says. "I've been seeing all of these tweets to 'Dr. Whore.'''
    We do it in so many other ways.
    Same facts, different reality. You say global warming; I say no proof. You say Black Lives Matter; I say White Lives Matter.
    The O.J. moment was just a prelude to our new normal.
    But what if that's not bad, but something good? Could that be the second lesson O.J. has to teach us?
    There's nostalgia for an America when we had fewer O.J. moments. Some remember how the "greatest generation" fought World War II, or how the country came together in the wake of September 11. We seemed to share the same reality and speak with the same voice.
    Yet suppose that speaking with once voice is actually dangerous, and that the O.J. moment reveals something that's right about America?
    That's what Shayne Lee remembers. A black New Yorker, he was attending a conservative white college in Virginia when the verdict was announced. He, too, was surrounded by whites and blacks who reacted in starkly different ways.
    He loved it.
    "The beauty of America is that we can have all of these fragmented voices and they can be different from each other and not be worried about being thrown in jail," he says. "When I look at Saudi Arabia, I'll take America every day."
    Lee, a sociologist at the University of Houston, says the goal of "true democracy" is to "give voices to different perspectives." Arguments, clashing points of view, raised voices -- that's democracy working.
    "Look at the Nazis," he says. "They were ruled by one point of view."
    Even the reaction to the O.J. verdict was more multidimensional than people realize, he says.
    Some of the African-Americans he was with that day thought Simpson was innocent, while others still celebrated even though they thought he was guilty.
    "They were saying, 'Rich white men have gotten off for crimes, I'm just so happy now to see a rich black man get off,'" he says. "There were even multiple perspectives among the people who celebrated."
    Still, how do you keep a country together when there is no shared sense of reality? Lee says the key is for people to "walk a mile in the moccasins of people who are different."
    It's why he demands his students argue for a point of view they don't agree with. It's why he invited a Nation of Islam member to speak to a class filled with whites, blacks, Muslims, Jews, Nigerians and Latinos.
    "He told me afterward that lecturing to your class was like lecturing before the United Nations," Lee says.
    There may be those who say Simpson only revealed what's wrong with America. I'm not so sure. I now imagine how awful it would have been to live in a place where everyone staring at those TV screens in 1995 felt compelled to react as one when Simpson's verdict was announced. Would that be the United States of America? Or North Korea?
    It's not easy living in a world that the O.J. moment created. It's even more difficult in a time when social media is rampant. Imagine how the O.J. trial would have been treated on Facebook and Twitter.
    Perhaps, though, the tumult, raised blood pressure and cries of fake news are better than the alternative. It was the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who once gave one of the best descriptions I've ever heard of America and democracy.
    America isn't easy listening music -- uniform, predictable, always pleasant to the ear.
    We are jazz.
    "Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don't agree with what they're playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all."
    And if you still think competing voices sound like noise in this post-O.J. era, there is at least one consolation we take as Simpson tries to move on.
    No matter where he goes or what he does, people won't be cheering him like they did when he was an NFL star or an actor.
    He's lost two pillars of support: Hollywood and the black community. No more Hertz commercials for O.J. Black preachers and civil rights leaders no longer defend him.
    Friends quoted Simpson as once saying, "I'm not black, I'm O.J." One of the grim jokes in the black community is that Simpson became black for the first and only time during his trial.
    At last, there appears to be something we can all agree on:
    Nobody likes O.J.