White America and Black America through the eyes of O.J.
Much is made of O.J. Simpson’s journey from Black America to White America in ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.” I’m a middle-aged, white male American. I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.
If you’re not watching “O.J.: Made in America,” you should. It’s riveting. And extremely well done. Even if you’re not a football fan, or was at one time an O.J. Simpson fan (as I was), the care and detail taken to reveal Simpson’s ascendance to pop culture icon against the backdrop of the projects of San Francisco (Potrero Hill), his celebrity status at USC, his lauded career with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills (and later with the San Francisco 49ers), to his television and movie stardom is both powerful and moving.
Simpson was America’s handsome hero. He is now perhaps America’s most infamous unconvicted murderer. He is currently in jail for unrelated crimes of armed robbery and kidnapping.
The Simpson documentary series is a distinctly American story of repression, racism, beatings, depression, adulation, ego, race riots, inequality, wealth, fear and murder. And that’s all before it gets to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, for which O.J. Simpson was found criminally innocent, but civilly liable.
I’m not black. I’m O.J.
Simpson was a product of his time. Though he actively tried not to be. His motto: O.J. first. He was, time and again, the un-black hero. At a time when other African Americans of note were striving for equality: Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Harry Belafonte, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Simpson’s goal was to be America’s hero, not Black America’s hero.
Through these touchpoints of Simpson’s (and America’s) lifetime — the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Watts riots, the ascendancy of racist actors within the Los Angeles Police Department and the hardline, aggressive, paramilitary approach to law enforcement of Chief Daryl Gates (1978 –1992), the Eula Love incident (1979), the Rodney King incident (1991), the Latasha Harlins incident (1991) and the subsequent riots (1992) Simpson was a non-entity. Not a hero to anyone touched by these events. A non-factor.
Like many of us. Like me. Should Simpson have been more actively involved in black civil rights? Judge for yourself. Should we all have? Probably. I’m ashamed of how little I knew about the Los Angeles race issues during the 1970s through the time of the People vs. Simpson trial. I didn’t live in California at the time. It started before I was born. I was a child for much of it. Like many of us, I learned how bad it was when the verdict was read.
Set aside for a moment what you think or know about O.J. Simpson. What has become more clear through the help of the documentary series is the divide between White America and Black America and specifically, how O.J. Simpson ascended to the heights of White America. It’s a place I’ve never been.
Simpson is shown to be a celebrity, a dazzling athlete, a titan of industry. He reaps all the perks of such glory. He is described as having found a place in White America.
Where the hell is that? I’m pretty sure I’ve never been there, even though I am a white American male. I readily acknowledge that I’ve been afforded many privileges in my lifetime that clearly are not afforded to many other millions of Americans. I am, apparently, lucky to be a white male in America.
But I’m not in “White America,” as portrayed in “O.J.: Made in America.” I’m not in the entertainment industry, nor the broadcasting industry. I’m not an accomplished athlete. I’m not a titan of industry. I’m not a highly paid executive. I’m not schmoozing, wheeling or dealing in night clubs, country clubs or strip clubs with beautiful, moneyed, on-the-glide-path white folks. I don’t know any of those people. Do you?
I can only think of a few people I’ve met in my lifetime that would rank for such privilege. The rest of us, the 99 percent, are somewhere … else? We’re not in White America. I’m definitely not in Black America (not being African American). “O.J.: Made in America” seems to be overlooking Gray America.
Gray America is vast. Like 99-percent-of-us vast. Simpson’s leap over Gray America may have been one of his most remarkable accomplishments. He went from poverty and crime, to success, to wealth and tragic crime.
The White America in “O.J.: Made in America” isn’t real to me. The one where you meet people. You network. You make deals. Drinks flow. Parties are had. Then fortunes are made. Until such time as the cycle repeats. That White America? Never found it.
Gray America is where the majority of Americans live. I’m sure the vast majority of the millions of Buffalo Bills fans that regaled in Simpson’s football exploits also do not live in White America. The Gray America where I live is a place where you scratch and claw to get better. You show up. You strive to improve your circumstances every day. You ask yourself why. Then you do it again the next day. And the next. And you just might, might, get ahead. Because, theoretically, you have a chance. Unless Wall Street has already rigged the game.
In Black America, the cycle of poverty is often too crippling to overcome. Some do. Most don’t.
The striving is probably the same in White America, Gray America and in Black America. I believe most successful people work hard. Many poor people work even harder. The differences are the outcomes. In O.J.’s White America, life’s a party. That’s where I have a problem with this excellent documentary. It’s not real. The two extremes do exist. But can the majority of Americans relate?
We’ll watch. Because it’s O.J. And America. And then we’ll get ready for work. But we won’t be the richer for it. Because we don’t live in O.J.’s White America.
© Julian Rogers
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