Unfortunately, near the end of the piece, Mr. Coates wanders into dangerous territory in terms of moral thinking. Though believing in Mr. Simpson’s guilt, he comes to accept his escape from justice as a kind of equalization for all the crimes that have been visited on black people over the centuries. That impulse is understandable, given the logic Mr. Coates has laid out.
But the danger here lies in the concept of “collective guilt” used by demagogues like Hitler and Donald Trump. The poor record of the Los Angeles Police Department changes nothing about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. They were murdered, and justice was not done in that crime. But they were white, O.J. was black, and blacks had suffered. Therefore their deaths, while tragic, were somehow understandable.
That’s the kind of thinking that led to the repression of black people and others, as well as to Dachau. It was justified because of who the victims and perpetrator were, not because of anything they had personally done.
O.J. is now in jail on an unrelated charge. The racist Mark Fuhrman gets paid by a cable news channel as an expert consultant on law enforcement. Black people are still routinely subjected to injustice by the “justice system.” So the “escape” of Mr. Simpson did not improve anything, and may have made things worse by increasing everyone’s sense of the “otherness” of people not like ourselves.
In short, we need more explanatory essays like Mr. Coates’s to help people understand things, but we should not yield to the impulse to see victory for “our side” in a blatant miscarriage of justice. That simply mirrors the kind of thinking that got us into our present state in the first place.
Ta-Nehisi Coates replies:
I deeply appreciate Howard Schmitt’s reading the essay and taking it seriously. I take his criticism to heart, and hope he continues to read and write in.
* * *
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered November’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
5. Napoleon Bonaparte. He began as a second lieutenant and rose to become emperor. He toppled some of the great thrones of Europe and emancipated Jews. And the legacy of his legal code lives on in places as disparate as Belgium and Louisiana.
— Nadine Bonner
4. Muhammad. He grafted a new system onto the Judeo-Christian tradition.
— Grant Lobrano
3. If you had asked "Who is the greatest politician in history?," I might have reasoned Abraham Lincoln, or Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt. But for the question that you actually asked, I can't see how the answer could be anyone other than Adolf Hitler.
— Cori Schlegel
2. Julius Caesar. He crafted the transition from republic to triumvirate to empire and left a legacy of leadership that was emulated for 2,000 years, and continues today.