Comparing Trayvon Martin, O.J. Simpson Cases

The televising of the O.J. Simpson murder trial 22 years ago ignited a national discourse on race and crime. Overwhelmingly, whites believed he was guilty; blacks believed him innocent. Could televising the Trayvon Martin trial have the opposite effect? John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a writer for the New Republic, offers his insight.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

On Friday, TV audiences got their first taste of the media frenzy that could come with a televised Trayvon Martin trial when a Florida judge granted bail to George Zimmerman. That decision, whether to televise or not, has yet to be made.

Writer John McWhorter thinks it would be a very good thing. And in the latest issue of The New Republic, he argues that it could become a bookend to another famous and racially charged trial: the O.J. Simpson case.

JOHN MCWHORTER: The televising of the O.J. Simpson trial really left a kind of blot on America's racial consciousness because there was a certain, understandable catharsis in Simpson being acquitted, and it was based on a very justifiable resentment in the black community about abuse from police forces over the years. But the sad problem was that it was pretty clear to anybody watching that the chances of him not being guilty were rather small.

And so most of the country watched somebody who was probably a murderer being cheered as some kind of hero. And even in the black community after the elation was over, it has settled in that it's highly unlikely that O.J. Simpson did not kill his wife. And so we can't feel like we defended or celebrated a hero.

So I, frankly, think in the black community, there's always been a certain amount of disappointment. And now, here we are, 15-plus years later, and I think we could try it again. And in this case, I think once again, we are looking at the very real issue of the nasty relationship between black men and police forces, and police profiling.

And so I think that that is something that's interesting. A great many white people feel terrible about what happened to Trayvon Martin. This is a really crucial case that comes at a particular moment, and so I would like to see it on TV. And we could see it done right this time. The O.J. Simpson trial didn't create any kind of racial healing at all. This would be a more useful conversation than what happened back in the mid-'90s.

RAZ: John, there's a movement that has been created around Trayvon Martin. Obviously, his mother and father are involved with that.

MCWHORTER: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: But obviously, a lot of passion, and a lot of anger, surrounding this case. What if there isn't a conviction, in the end?

MCWHORTER: I hadn't thought about that, Guy, actually. If there were no conviction in this case, then I think that it would create such an outcry that that, in itself, would further America's attempt to work on the relationship between young black men and police forces, the nature of profiling. I think a great many good-thinking people - and I think most of them not black; I think this would be a very large movement in this country of not just black people - would see that we really did need to have a new kind of conversation about who can have a gun, and how easy it is to get them.

I hope it doesn't go that way, though. I think it would be more constructive if we could see justice operating in the way that it's supposed to when so often in cases like this, it hasn't.

RAZ: That's John McWhorter. He writes for The New Republic and the Daily News. His latest article in The New Republic is about why he believes the Trayvon Martin trial should be televised. John, thank you so much.

MCWHORTER: Thank you, Guy.

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