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The Three Lessons of O.J.

by Stephanie Mason

Everybody's tired of the O.J. thing. Yet and still, everybody has something to say about it. We've all put in our two-cents worth as to whether he's guilty or innocent (or not guilty, which is something else altogether). We all have an opinion about Nicole's character and fitness as a mother. We've heard and spread rumor after ugly rumor about O.J., the murders, the trial, Kato, AC, the jury, and the judge. I don't want to address that. It's all a moot point as far as I'm concerned. I want to talk about what's happened to O.J. as a black man in America, since that night in the Los Angeles freeway. June 17, 1994. That's what interests me. It would interest you too if you knew what I know. Maybe you do. Anyway, it all comes down to forgetting who we are and where we stand in society. In that respect, O.J. is symbolic of a lot of us who are black in America. That is especially true for those of us who are black and living the middle class "American Dream."

That means a pretty large number of us. Like O.J., many of us thought that education, occupation, and material gain would lead to a change in status. We thought that upward mobility was meant to include everybody. That's where we all went wrong, O.J. included. The only difference between O.J. and a large faction of the black middle class is that he's had to go through a long, highly publicized, racially and sexually charged murder trial to realize where he went wrong. The press has had to make O.J. into a real-life Bigger Thomas before he could remember who he is and where he stands. That's what's known as niggerization in some circles. Look at O.J. He spent years trying to be 'just American' or 'just O.J.'. Perhaps he thought, mistakenly, that wealth and fame could change America's perception of him as a black man. Well, if O.J. doesn't know he's black now (and what that means), he never will. Like so many others who thought they'd escaped the stigma of of blackness, it took a catastrophe to bring him back to reality.

That's why O.J. is so representative of so many of us. That's why so many of us are rooting for him (again, this is not about my feelings, just what I see). Like O.J., we thought that if we worked hard enough and carried ourselves with pride, decency, and pleasant manners, we wouldn't have to be niggers anymore. A lot of us thought that if we didn't "act" like niggers, that if we followed all the rules and played all the games, we wouldn't be seen as niggers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this country, it really doesn't matter what you do or who you are (or think you are). If you're black, you will l always be a nigger as far as white America is concerned. Black people in all facets, all aspects, all walks of life, are seen as unruly threads in the socio-political fabric of America. Was anyone listening when Malcolm X reminded the world that a black man with a Ph.D. is still a nigger? It doesn't look that way.

Like O.J., many of us have committed the most egregious of Weberian mistakes. We've confused class with status. For many of us, it's going to take a large-scale racial disaster for us to realize what's been happening all the time. Or what hasn't been happening at all. Bob Dole said it best when he remarked that "there's a reason that 64 per cent of white men voted republican (in November, 1994)." That reason has nothing to do with family values. It has more to do with the politics of exclusion and inclusion. White liberals have wooed Afro-America for years with the promise of inclusion. So many of us wanted so badly to be "included,' that we were willing to compromise ourselves, our agendas, our identities. How did so many people confuse economic parity with social and political equality? Black people were never intended to be included in the (white) American polity. Not now, not ever. Like O.J., many of us have fallen prey to the politics of inclusion. Now we stand preparing (for those of us who are aware) to pay the price of alienation, fracturing, and exclusion. The republican revolution is upon us, as we face the postmodern legacy of the white backlash.

A great many of realize the kind of danger that we're facing right now and in the future. Many more either don't know or don't care. I'm afraid and you should be, too. I'm afraid that it's going to take an O.J.-sized catastrophe to shake Afro-America out of its complacent stupor. I'm afraid that most of us won't realize what's going on until it's too late. If Ellis Cose's book, The Rage of a Privileged Class, is at all representative of the black middle class, then we're further behind (as a whole) than I'd imagined. If you're just now realizing that will always wear the "scar of race," no matter how successful you are, then I feel sorry for you. The so-called "privileged class" should have been enraged all along. O.J. should, too.

Had O.J. remembered the meaning of blackness in America, he might not have had to play the Bigger Thomas role right now. He might not even have been on trial. Had O.J. never tried to escape the stigma of blackness, he might not have received such a nasty wake-up call. None of us know whether O.J. will be convicted, acquitted, or eventually exonerated. That is yet to be seen. Actually, before the jury ever begins deliberations, we can take away at least three lessons from the Simpson case. The first is that those of us who are black will always be black, whether we're doctors, lawyers, or drug dealers. The second thing to remember out of all the confusion is that, because we will always wear the "scar of race," we shouldn't confuse class with status. The final, and most important lesson that we should take away from the O.J. fiasco is that it's better to be angry now than to be sorry later.

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