If O.J. had been white…

Last weekend I had the luxury of using a spa gift certificate gifted to me ages ago.  Even better, I got to catch up on my embarrassingly slim knowledge of popular culture–the Kardashians show was on the monitor.  The pedicurist encouraged me to watch the Kardashians, rightfully admonishing that I could not call myself a sociologist–an expert on society–without knowing anything about the Kardashians.  Well, in my defense I already knew that one of them is engaged to Kanye West.

After the show ended I asked my pedicurist what the sisters’ claim to fame was.  She explained that their father was a celebrity defense lawyer, and one of his most famous cases was the defense of O.J. Simpson.  Someone else chimed in, “How could that jury let him go?!  It was obvious he was guilty!!”  I should explain that this was an upscale Boston salon, staffed, from what I saw, exclusively by white women.  The stark difference between black and white Americans’ responses to the trial was noted by many at the time, so the comment didn’t surprise me.  What surprised me was what came next.  “Well, you know that if he was white…”

The suggestion was that, in fact, the opposite of what African Americans feared could happen actually happened–O.J. was acquitted precisely because he was black.  It seemed that even when the evidence was contrary to stereotypes, this African American man was still seen as representative of his race.  We’re used to racial and religious minorities being seen as members of their race when described–for example, we hear about Muslim terrorists but just mentally ill individuals in the Oklahoma City bombings. Examples abound.  In the case of O.J’s trial, one could have imagined a scenario in which he was convicted and consequently many (black) Americans felt that race played a role.  It’s hard to believe that a black man gets the benefit of the doubt in a way that a white man wouldn’t, when so much evidence shows that black men are convicted and incarcerated at alarming rates in the United States.  The comment suggested to me that the woman was employing a frame of reverse discrimination to see any racialized data or interactions, even when they belie the most obvious stereotypes and run against the traditional ways in which we know race plays itself out in the criminal justice system.  The notion that whites experience reverse discrimination–or in this case, that blacks receive undue preference–is powerful.