If the almost gavel-to-gavel coverage of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial did not make clear that matters as grave as guilt and innocence in gruesome crimes are seen through the cloudy lens of race, footage of reaction to the verdict certainly did.
Images of men and women gathered outside the L.A. courthouse, in Times Square, on college campuses, in workplace break rooms — wherever people could take in live TV — captured black Americans cheering Simpson’s acquittal while white Americans appeared dismayed, hurt and angry.
There were exceptions, of course, people whose views of that moment were more nuanced. But in 1995, when a mostly black jury acquitted Simpson of a double murder that killed Simpson’s ex-wife — whose injuries were at the center of a spousal battery case Simpson had pleaded “no contest” to six years earlier — just 22 percent of black Americans believed Simpson was guilty while 63 percent of white Americans thought the same, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. But, in 2015, that same poll found that 57 percent of black Americans and 83 percent of white Americans believe he is guilty of double murder.
It was some combination of those divisions and beliefs that drew much of the nation’s attention again Thursday as a Nevada commission granted Simpson parole. Simpson has served nine years of a 33-year prison sentence on unrelated charges of kidnapping and armed robbery. But, when he leaves prison in October, he will emerge into an America far more convinced of his guilt in the double murder case where he was acquitted. It’s a place where most do not view him as blameless. It’s also a place where, for some, claims of actual or perceived racial injustice continues to override other facts.
There were similar responses to allegations earlier this week that singer R. Kelly has coerced young women into an abusive cult. They were the latest in a string of stories of sexual deviancy and alleged crimes that have followed Kelly since the 1990s. And they are what some fans continue to describe as a setup. Bill Cosby, the comedian and self-appointed guide to better living, has been the beneficiary of the same fact-resistant doubt from his most loyal fans. After at least 60 women accused the comedian of sexual assault and Cosby admitted under oath to obtaining prescription drugs to give to women, Cosby loyalists still believe it’s all a conspiracy to bring him down.
In America, there remains a slice of the populace for whom the combination of talent and a shared sense of embattled identity can nullify any and all accusations. Because these Americans identify with or admire some aspect of a man, any alleged guilt, culpability or wrong does not rank — particularly when the accusers are women or girls. The result is a kind of rigid, race-related fealty that makes sexism and gender-based violence no more than a tertiary concern. This particular brand of race loyalty expresses itself in the form of elaborate theories with a distant genetic relationship to the truth, victim-blaming and the categorical denial of demonstrable facts.
This isn’t unique to black Americans. During the 2016 election, Trump’s most committed, overwhelmingly white fans dismissed the president’s boasts about groping women without consent as ordinary locker-room banter. Some have swallowed whole claims that Donald Trump Jr. sat down with a woman he believed was a Russian government lawyer with damaging information on Hillary Clinton because, they say, that amounts to dirty but ordinary politics.
For them, Trump has become a totem, a beloved representative of their racial and ideological interests. Trump is the leader who has promised a nation in which immigrants from select countries can be presumed criminals, terrorists or problems that should be excluded from the country. He has assured these white Americans that he shares their sense of flagging social dominance and, if restored, the economic opportunities they deserve will follow. These loyalists embrace all that is Trump because they sense he shares their membership in a group that is under siege.
Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables.”
This week, The Root’s Stephen A. Crockett Jr. highlighted a similar group, people he called “the Black Deplorables,” because of their hear-and-see-no-evil response to repeated allegations levied against Kelly.
The “Black Deplorables” rallied this week when BuzzFeed News published this week a story illuminating claims that Kelly operates a cult, The story hung on allegations made by former Kelly employees and associates as well as parents who say he is holding their daughter against her will. They say Kelly houses a collection of young women who are allowed to eat, use telephones, shower and speak only with his permission. This follows multiple allegations of sexual contact with minor girls.
In another case, a court annulled a marriage between Kelly, then in his late 20s, and 15-year-old singer Aaliyah. Kelly had produced her debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” The girl’s parents learned of the marriage and had it annulled. The very next year, Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” rounded out the soundtrack for the kid-centric movie “Space Jams.” It seems the distinct whiff of alleged pedophilia wasn’t a problem.
By 2008, a video which prosecutors said depicted Kelly urinating on a naked 14-year-old girl in the course of various sex acts wasn’t enough to convict the artist on child pornography charges. Then, he sat for a BET interview in which a journalist proffered a key question: Do you like teenage girls? Kelly’s answer: “When you say teenage, how old are we talking?”
Seriously. That’s what the man said.
Still, after each of the previous allegations, Kelly’s career continued to grow. He has sold more than 34 million records, according to Billboard. And a follow-up BuzzFeed listicle this week queried nearly four dozen musicians with thriving careers who have collaborated with Kelly in the past. Will they do so again? Representatives for 43 offered no comment or did not respond at all. Some of his fans continue to rally around him, though from many others the condemnations have been loud.
Cosby’s slide from the pedestal of revered public figures began in earnest because a black male comedian pointed out the apparent hypocrisy between Cosby’s public moralizing and the things multiple women said he had done in private. And a jury considering aggravated indecent assault charges against Cosby this year could not reach a verdict. Prosecutors plan to try Cosby again. Still, outside the courthouse, a member of Cosby’s advisory team raised a black power fist in celebration.
Of course, there are ways that Simpson, Kelly, Cosby and Trump are not at all comparable. Trump is white, was born wealthy and has not faced criminal charges. He is now the sitting U.S. president, though with historically low approval ratings.
The three other men are black and, before fame and wealth earned with their talents, they experienced some of the worst of what that can mean. They aren’t immune to the very real and pervasive existence of racial discrimination today, but their defenses are better stocked than average. That’s what made the Simpson Dream Team’s claims that the ex-athlete was on trial due to a racially biased system both cynical and effective.
Thus far, the repeat allegations have put Kelly, like O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby, on the list of black public figures about which debate can be had almost any time and any place three Americans are gathered. The search for a place where opinions about Trump can be described as ambivalent would also likely run long. But in each case, those willing to dismiss wholesale various allegations made against these men do so by claiming their accusers are lying, greedy, dishonest or essentially women and girls less upstanding and important than the accused.