You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Henry Louis Gates Jr. On O.j., Reconsidered

"Wynton Marsalis says, 'My worst fear is to have to go before the criminal-justice system.' Absurdly enough, it’s mine, too."

That was Henry Louis Gates Jr., in 1995. It comes from a piece he wrote for The New Yorker about the reaction of black Americans to the O.J. Simpson verdict. (The magazine has helpfully placed the whole essay online). Gates' story mostly consists of conversations he conducted with various black intellectuals and celebrities, from the insightful (Anita Hill) to the maddening (Cornel West, who sets forth his theory that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed by drug dealers). Gates does occasionally provide his own opinions; this excerpt was particularly interesting:

An official culture treats [black claims of O.J.'s innocence] as it does those of millenarian cultists in Texas, or Marxist deconstructionists in the academy: as things to be diagnosed, deciphered, given meaning—that is, another meaning. Black folk say they believe Simpson is innocent, and then the white gatekeepers of a media culture cajolingly explain what black folk really mean when they say it, offering the explanation from the highest of motives: because the alternative is a population that, by their lights, is not merely counter-normative but crazy. Black folk may mean anything at all; just not what they say they mean.

There is, no doubt, some undeniable truth to what Gates is saying. But fourteen years later, this paragraph, I think, inadvertantly highlights the biggest lacuna in Gates' piece. His last sentence has some understandable anger, but at the same time no one consistently says what they mean. And it has nothing to do with being black. Thus the one possibility that Gates does not explore is the one where some African Americans really did think O.J. Simpson was a double murderer, but still cheered the verdict. Gates is arguing that people who doubt (or doubted) black support for the verdict were doing so out of a misplaced paternalism. To some extent, he is no doubt correct. But it is not necessarily paternalistic or condescending to doubt whether people mean what they say. In fact, it is hard to have a complex view of how human beings function without doing so. 

Finally, here is Gates' ending:

[R]ace politics becomes a court of the imagination wherein blacks seek to punish whites for their misdeeds and whites seek to punish blacks for theirs, and an infinite regress of score-settling ensues—yet another way in which we are daily becoming meta and meta. And so an empty vessel like O. J. Simpson becomes filled with meaning, and more meaning—more meaning than any of us can bear. No doubt it is a far easier thing to assign blame than to render justice. But if the imagery of the court continues to confine the conversation about race, it really will be a crime. 

--Isaac Chotiner