Sarah Paulson portrays Marcia Clark, left, and Sterling K. Brown portrays Christopher Darden in a scene from “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” (Ray Mickshaw/FX via Associated Press)
Opinion writer

The O.J. Simpson trial is a powerful generational marker. As my colleague Hank Stuever writes in his review of the first installment of FX’s new “American Crime Story” anthology series, which follows on the success of showrunner Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” assumes “that anyone under 30 is only vaguely aware that, once upon a time in the dial-up modem days, a retired professional football star was arrested and charged with murdering his ex-wife and a restaurant employee with whom she was casually acquainted.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the murders and trial, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” draws plenty of parallels between that moment in American history and our own, 20 years hence. The series begins with the video of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers, an event that set off riots in 1992, and continues on to trace the rise of cable news and tabloid press and even to foreshadow the rise of the Kardashian reality television empire. (Robert Kardashian, played here by David Schwimmer, showing new depths, was one of Simpson’s best friends.)

And if you were old enough to remember the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; the clash between prosecutors Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), and the lawyer Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who ultimately took the lead in Simpson’s (Cuba Gooding Jr., the weak link in the production) courtroom defense; the way Detective Mark Fuhrman’s (Steven Pasquale) racism made him an ugly symbol of law enforcement; and Simpson’s acquittal in the slayings, the Simpson case has retained a particular hold on the imagination. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a portrait of a squandered moment in American history, a time when we might have planted a very different kind of fruit from the bitter harvests we’re reaping now, if only we were capable of it.

In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man,” a long piece Henry Louis Gates Jr. published in October 1995 after both Simpson’s acquittal and the Million Man March, Gates wrote that “As blacks exulted at Simpson’s acquittal, horrified whites had a fleeting sense that this race thing was knottier than they’d ever supposed—that, when all the pieties were cleared away, blacks really were strangers in their midst. (The unspoken sentiment: And I thought I knew these people.) There was the faintest tincture of the Southern slaveowner’s disquiet in the aftermath of the bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner—when the gentleman farmer was left to wonder which of his smiling, servile retainers would have slit his throat if the rebellion had spread as was intended, like fire on parched thatch.”

I’ve come back to that passage again and again as I’ve read books and articles about the trial, and as I’ve watched and rewatched the first six episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” And that idea of a flash of light that rearranges the way we see the world, but that casts as many shadows as it dispels, seems to me to be the perfect way to explain why we can’t let go of the Simpson case. During 1994 and 1995, police brutality and racism, domestic violence, the worst impulses in the media, and bitter divisions on the basis of race and gender were all on stark display. But we didn’t manage to resolve any of the questions outlined by that flash of light.

Instead, the number of African Americans who said in 1994 and 1995 that they believed that O.J. Simpson was innocent became a talisman of some sort of mass racial derangement in a way that deflected the need to address — and to address urgently — the very real problems with policing in America that have come back to the center of the news cycle. It was a way for white Americans to recognize the divide between themselves and their black friends, neighbors, colleagues and employees, but to dismiss it as irrational.

“To accept the racial reduction . . . is to miss the fact that the black community itself is riven, and in ways invisible to most whites,” Gates wrote in 1995. A Frontline examination of the Simpson verdict pulled out some of those tensions.

“I don’t think we should make the mistake of believing that black people who celebrated a) thought O.J. was innocent, or b) were even concerned most about O.J. as opposed to their Uncle Charlie or Bubba or their sister Shanaynay or their Aunt Jackie, who had been screwed by a system that never paid attention to them,” Michael Eric Dyson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, told Frontline. “‘O.J.’ was a term that represented every black person that got beat up by the criminal justice system, and now we have found some vindication, and guess what, white America? It was with a black man that you loved.” And Shawn Holley, then a managing partner in Cochran’s practice, suggested “It really had to do with Johnnie Cochran: Johnnie Cochran commanding that courtroom, being brilliant, beating the system.”

This grim roster rolls on. Marcia Clark, who was savaged for her hair, her clothes and her focus on her career in the midst of a bitter divorce, as well as for her courtroom strategy, is a painful example of how women can be put on trial for their own likability. And more specifically, she’s also a discomfiting example of the rifts that can divide white and African American women. As both Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Run of His Life” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which adapts Toobin’s book, make clear, Clark went into the Simpson trial convinced that she would triumph because of her rapport with black female jurors. Clark believed that the case was a straightforward domestic violence murder and that everyone would see it the same way.

“After trials, Clark would often speak to jurors, and the ones who always gave her the warmest greetings were the African-American women,” Toobin wrote. “She even had a fan club of sorts, a group of former jurors, all black women, who wrote her letters and kept in touch well after their trials had ended. Clark felt that these women–her women–would respond to the story she would tell of Nicole Brown Simpson’s death.”

Of course, as both Toobin’s book and the miniseries explore, they didn’t. In research prior to jury selection, it became clear that African American women hated Marcia Clark, and they had less sympathy for Nicole Brown Simpson than for O.J. Simpson himself. And Clark’s arguments about domestic violence didn’t resonate with them the way she anticipated. Clark, like plenty of other white feminists in years to come, gambled on the idea that African American women would prioritize gender over race despite indications to the contrary before jury selection. She lost.

In a similar way, one of the major clashes of the trial — whether the specific, racist language Mark Fuhrman had used in conversations with other officers and with an aspiring screenwriter, who had taped their conversations, could be spoken in the courtroom — has implications for the trigger warnings and language debates that have become so prominent today. The alignment of issues may not have been exactly the same as they are today. The prosecution, which was trying to minimize the role that the LAPD’s racism might have played in the Simpson investigation, argued for the suppression of racist language, while the defense, which was making police racism a centerpiece of its strategy, was arguing for Fuhrman’s slurs to be spoken aloud in court. But the arguments on both sides are eerily similar to the debates taking place today.

Prosecutor Christopher Darden, in an attempt to keep that evidence out, argued that “it is an extremely derogatory and denigrating term, because it is so prejudicial and so extremely inflammatory that to use that word in any situation will evoke some type of emotional response from any African American within earshot of that word.” Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran countered with an argument that in contemporary debates is associated with a more conservative position on inflammatory or even merely upsetting speech. “It is demeaning to our jurors to say that African Americans who have lived under oppression for 200-plus years in this country cannot work within the mainstream, cannot hear these offensive words,” he argued. Cochran carried the day.

This is not to say that America is the exact same place it was in 1995.

The most recent discussions of the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby — sparked by a black, male comedian, Hannibal Buress — have aimed squarely at the idea that no matter how much Cosby had done for African Americans over the course of his career and private philanthropy, there was no pass he could purchase that would allow him to abuse women. The rise of Black Lives Matter has prompted expressions of solidarity (however awkward some of them might be) from white observers, instead of merely the sort of horror that Gates described, and that Dominick Dunne captured in his Vanity Fair coverage and novel about the trial, “Another City, Not My Own.” The trigger warning debate may continue, but I’d argue that it’s happening in more sophisticated terms, and with more attention paid to the actual function of trauma.

But it’s impossible to watch “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and not wonder what might have happened differently. What could have been if police departments across the country had looked at the Simpson case and decided that antagonism between their officers and African American communities were a national disaster that might prevent them from securing big convictions? Even if law enforcement agencies had acted only in self-interest, we might have fewer young black men and women on the rolls of the dead, and fewer cities scarred by riots.

What might it have been like if we had proved more capable of holding multiple ideas in our heads simultaneously? What if it might have been possible for Mark Fuhrman to be a racist and a bad cop who didn’t plant evidence? What if white Americans had been able to recognize polls where African Americans voiced their support for Simpson’s innocence as a vote against policing nationwide? The idea of a national conversation about race (much less a national conversation about domestic violence) has always been a fantasy that would allow us to avoid a material reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy. And I suppose the Simpson trial is a useful measurement of the limits of our capacity to even engage in that limited dialogue with each other instead of retreating to safe ground and staring at our opponents in horror.

“American Crime Story” may be a separate franchise from Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” rooted in truth rather than the fantastical and supernatural. But “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a horror story, too. It’s haunted by the violence with which Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed, and by all the violence and pain we might have prevented in the years since. Simpson, acquitted in a criminal trial and the loser in a civil case, might or might not be the author of the atrocity that began it all. But responsibility for the latter lies with the rest of us, especially those who heard a national cry of agony and found a way to absorb the sound, but not the substance.