OJ Simpson. Good Negro, Bad Nigger and Complex Human Being!

Last week, July 20, 2017, inmate 1027820 , Orenthal James Simpson (OJ Simpson), was granted parole by a four member Nevada parole commissioners corrections board. Simpson is currently being held at the Lovestock Correctional Center which is located in rural Nevada. His scheduled release date is October 1st.

For many people following this story, it was not that much of a surprise. After all, the once former Heisman trophy winner, NFL great and at one time, all around likable (for some lovable) Simpson, was now 70 years old. Slimmer, gray haired and notably aged, since his initial incarceration in 2008, he could hardly be considered the same potential danger or menace to society that he was believed to be a decade earlier, or in the mid 1990s.By the mid-1990s, he was indeed a polarizing figure. OJ seemed to be in a racial twilight zone.

Simpson’s reaction at being granted parole was one of genuine surprise and relief. He had the support of one of his sisters, Shirley Baker, and his 48-year-old daughter, Arnelle, who were present at his hearing. His demeanor was typical of his previous behavior. As he gave his statement, he went on the offensive, even going so far as to state, with a straight face, that he has always “lived a conflict free life.” I can only imagine the number of eyebrows that were raised, eyes that were rolling, shade that was thrown, and other varied reactions that took place upon hearing those words spew out of the mouth of Mr. Simpson. My initial reaction was, please! As in, Negro please! You don’t believe that bullshit yourself!

Over the past two decades, the nation has been captivated by the Simpson case. The initial 1994 trial spawned numerous books, television programs, and a network, Court TV. Many law school professors discuss the trial on a routine basis and the event has become a permanent fixture in the pop culture fabric of our nation. Just last year, ESPN’S OJ MADE IN AMERICA and FX’s Emmy award winning miniseries THE PEOPLE vs. OJ SIMPSON demonstrated society’s fascination with both Simpson and the Simpson trial. The trial is deeply etched in many people’s memories.

To be fair, prior to his arrest in 1994, Simpson did indeed live a largely quiet, yet charmed life. He was seen by many people as a congenial Black man of immense athletic talent who transcended race as well as often adopted a neutral stance on racial matters. He was a frequent guest in many B movies (in particular, the Naked Gun comedies) and a Monday Night Football commentator.

Many corporations such as Hertz Rent a Car eagerly sought him to endorse their products and he was only too glad to do so. He was a very effective spokesperson in that many Americans across racial lines (in particular, White Americans) liked, in fact, loved OJ Simpson. And that intense admiration was reciprocated by him. When it came to race, Simpson often took nuanced stances that were designed to not offend White sensibilities on the issue.

Despite his efforts to straddle the lines of racial neutrality, Simpson soon became aware that once he was implicated in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her body builder, waiter friend, Ronald Goldman, the once Black Prince Charming image he had worked so stealthy and diligently to cultivate quickly evaporated. His image rapidly transformed from good Black man to brutal Black buck n***er. The fact that Nicole Brown Simpson was blond haired, blue eyed and a former beauty queen. Ronald Goldman was talk, dark, handsome, muscular and a part time model intensified the hatred toward Simpson, particularly in racially conscious and certain restrictive social circles. Race did indeed matter!

While racial animosity toward Simpson was primarily directed toward him by Whites, there was a number of Black folk who made their disdain with Simpson well known. In certain Black circles (not all), Simpson was seen as a White folk’s negro, soft shoe, sellout, self-hating negro and referred to in other less than flattering terms. His blackness was the subject of fierce debate. By the mid-1990s, he was indeed a polarizing figure. OJ seemed to be in a racial twilight zone.

Without a doubt, OJ Simpson is a larger than life figure. It will be interesting to see how he will conduct himself upon his second release from prison. Some have argued that Simpson should not be allowed to financially profit upon his release. Others feel that Simpson has paid his dues and deserves the opportunity to live his life with as much normalcy as possible.

Both sides are passionate in their stances. However, if we are being honest with ourselves, most rational people know that Simpson was incarcerated in 2008 for failing to be convicted in 1995. The judge and jury in the second trial were determined to see Mr. Simpson face justice for what they saw as his failure to face justice in his initial 1995 acquittal. Even most legal experts conceded as much arguing that under normal circumstances, most people would have received 3 years, likely less or even probation for the sort of crime that Simpson was involved in in Nevada.

Decades later, even in the current climate, just minutes after his parole request was granted, social media did not miss a beat as it weighed in with avid commentary. Both supporters and detractors wasted no time in letting their feelings known. Comments about the first trial dominated commentary among detractors. Excessive punishment and racial bias were the preferred words of choice for supporters.

It is very telling that many of Simpson’s critics (mostly White) who have taken him to task (and in my opinion, justifiably so) for two gruesome murders seemed to either overlook or ignore the fact that Claus Von Bulow, Robert Blake and several other White men were exonerated under similar circumstances. In the case of Von Bulow, he went on to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair and became a social fixture in New York society circles.

Moreover, if we are being honest, the truth is that if Simpson had been accused of murdering his first wife, a Black woman and another Black person, the searing level of public outrage and craven level of print and electronic media coverage would not have been anywhere near as intense. In fact, I would argue that might have been a minor cover story in Jet or Ebony and not much else. Many online Black websites that cover Black news did not exist at the time. Such attitudes demonstrate that Black lives are too often of little, if any, significance to the larger society.

OJ Simpson is a larger than life figure. It will be interesting to see how he will conduct himself upon his second release from prison. Many people are hoping he will turn the corner, move on with his life, and stay out of the limelight. Others loathe him and are rooting for his demise and destruction. They say with age comes wisdom. Hopefully, Simpson has learned from his mistakes, will make wise decisions, and behave accordingly.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also a public speaker