O.J. Simpson: What's Next and What can we Learn? (By Zachary Draves)
It is as if we woke up and it was October 3, 1995 all over again. Everyone stopped what they were doing to hear the fate of Orenthal James Simpson and got the same result. Simpson will be out on parole this fall in his 2007 armed robbery case in Las Vegas. The question that is on everyone's mind is what will happen next? Given that Simpson is infamous for his unpredictability, nobody knows for sure what the end result will be. But one thing that is for certain is that our fascination with O.J. Simpson will continue. We will spend the rest of our lives debating whether he was guilty of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman on June 12, 1994. However, from a social work perspective, much has to be learned from this soap opera if we are going to be successful working with our clients. If there are any two important factors that can be learned from the O.J. case, it is the raised awareness of issues of race and violence against women and girls.
On the issue of race, it was obvious that it played a significant role in during the murder trial. O.J. became a symbol for the America's history of racial injustice. Once the verdict was rendered, a sense of jubilation was evident among many African Americans against the backdrop of racism by Mark Fuhrman and the LAPD during the 1980's and 90's and in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, murder of Latasha Harlins, and the subsequent riots in Los Angeles. The feeling was not so much whether O.J. himself was actually innocent or guilty, but that the system finally worked in favor of an African American man and there needs to a better understanding of why those reactions were so strong. Now O.J. of course was someone who was not involved in the racial politics of the 1960's and 1970's at the height of his football career whereas Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar did sacrifice their athletic success for social justice. Yet, during that trial, he had the entire legacy of race in America on his shoulders. Social workers follow a code of ethics that clearly states we should combat discrimination in all its forms and in the years since the O.J. trial with the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Philando Castillo, and Alton Sterling, there is still a major problem with racial disparities in the criminal justice system and a continued strained relationship between the African American community and law enforcement. We need to combat racial bias, implement police reforms, reduce the prison population, end the war on drugs, and have honest discussions about race and privilege in America if we are going to move forward.
When it comes to violence against women and girls, it is also obvious that O.J. has a history of violent behavior towards his late wife Nicole Brown Simpson and we all remember the horrifying 911 calls she made pleading for her life. Before, nobody really took domestic violence seriously and still don't in many cases today. We live in a culture where the burden always is put on the victim/survivor and that she is to blame for her ordeal. O.J. continuously blamed Nicole and has not taken any responsibility for his numerous beatings of her. We also live in a culture where men and boys are brought up to embody a very narrowly defined and ultimately dangerous definition of what manhood is. The idea is that men have to be tough, strong, aggressive, dominating, controlling, and cannot under any circumstances show any vulnerability, emotion (other than anger), sadness, or being hurt for fear of not being considered "manly" enough. When it comes to relationships with women, men are taught to view them not as our equals, but as caregivers, spouses, and sexual objects. O.J. engaged in infidelity and after Nicole was murdered was seen in strip clubs and bars associating with women who were young enough to be his daughter or granddaughter. He also was in an infamous reality television show called "You got Juiced!" that featured highly sexualized, degrading, and objectifying images of women and him posturing as a pimp like figure. Immediately after Nicole's death, domestic violence shelters reported calls coming in at record rates and in 1994 with the help of her sisters Denise and Tonya, the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton which set up the mechanisms for how to respond to cases of domestic violence. As social workers we have a responsibility to tend to the needs of our clients and we need to continue to be involved in educating the public about the epidemic of domestic violence and to save lives. We need to combat a culture that blames the victims/survivors and allow for the voices of those who have lived through the horror to be heard and encourage more women to report the abuse in a safe and timely manner. We also need to radically redefine manhood in America so that men and boys can live a life full of empathy, compassion, and emotional literacy and to encourage more men to do the same.
In the end, the O.J. Simpson story will most likely never go away as we move on with our lives, but we must never forget the important lessons that came from this saga and continue in our efforts to fight for the justice, freedom, and equality that every citizen is entitled too. For more information and to get a better understanding on issues of race and gender, I highly recommend everyone watch the Oscar winning ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America.