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O.J. Simpson will return to a bleaker racial landscape

America went from ‘post-racial’ to back to reality during his prison term

The singular shot in O.J.: Made in America that stays with me from the nearly eight hours of footage came near the end, when a faded can of Coca-Cola rusts away on its side in the Nevada desert, not far from where O.J. Simpson was in prison. It’s not hard to see the connection: two fallen American icons.

Gravity and time are the two greatest forces on the planet. Everything comes down, and every era ends. Yet few falls have been as impossible to ignore as Simpson’s.

When his legal sagas first started, when police quickly turned to him as a suspect in the June 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, all I could think of was the time I’d seen O.J. at his peak. A decade earlier I had attended high school with O.J.’s two older children, and one of my friends lived right down the street from his mansion in Brentwood, California. We stopped by the house one time and got a glimpse of the good life: beautiful home, Ferrari in the driveway, lounging outside with the family, maid bringing out refreshments, shooting hoops on the baskets set up on the tennis courts. From all that to handcuffs.

We know how it went from there. If you weren’t around for it, you’ve certainly been brought up to speed by the O.J. resurgence in the media the past couple of years. It’s all combined to make his getting paroled from prison Thursday feel more like an event than a footnote.

O.J. was granted parole six months to the day that former President Barack Obama left the White House. Simpson’s sentence at the Lovelock Correctional Center began one month before Obama took office. There’s some symmetry there, a strange link between the central racial figure from the last decade of the 20th century and the central racial figure from the first decade of the 21st century.

O.J. vanished from the public eye for the duration of the time Obama occupied center stage. In separate ways, they both represent the inescapability of race.

Simpson attempted to shed his racial background for much of his life and even managed to beat a system historically stacked against African-Americans — only to see the beast claw him back and throw him into prison. No, he wasn’t convicted in criminal court for the murders of Nicole and Ron. Yet he served nine years on an armed robbery case while the men who actually brought guns into the room did no time. In between the criminal trials was a bizarre stage in which Simpson not only couldn’t stay on a righteous path after receiving the ultimate second chance, he walked to the brink of confession.

In the time Simpson was in prison, Obama’s election went from a promise of true equality to a lesson that America wasn’t ready for a black president. The ultimate product of the Obama presidency was an unprecedented level of disrespect and resistance from Republicans, and finally the election of Donald Trump.

Obama himself quickly came to terms with his ironic legacy and attributed it to his ahead-of-schedule arrival.

O.J. Simpson says he’s become a better Christian while in prison, often being asked to mediate conflicts.

“I probably showed up 20 years sooner than the demographics would have anticipated,” he said in the definitive Obama exit interview, conducted by David Remnick for The New Yorker. “And, in that sense, it was a little bit more surprising. The country had to do more adjusting and processing of it. It undoubtedly created more anxiety than it will 20 years from now, provoked more reactions in some portion of the population than it will 20 years from now.”

It’s not that Obama failed, it’s that the ideal of Obama failed. The great racial divide that was exposed for all to see from the divergent reactions to the original not-guilty verdict for Simpson in 1995 seemed to close when a multiracial coalition of almost 67 million people voted for Obama. For a moment it was possible to believe society was post-racial. Now we know better. Somehow the assertion that black lives matter is a controversial statement. We’re post-post-racial.

This is the scene Simpson returns to, this bleaker landscape. He also walks out to yet another perception of him, having had the microscopic details of his life broadcast in Ezra Edelman’s opus, not to mention the unflattering portrayal in Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”

We’ve heard and seen so much about Simpson in his absence that it’s hard to ascertain the real person. Maybe it’s too late for that person to ever emerge again, as difficult as it is to overcome perception. It’s not a stretch to think of him as a character, one who goes into the American canon.

Perhaps the most amazing scene in The Wire came when the prison book club discussed The Great Gatsby. It’s the Great American Tragic TV Show’s take on The Great American Tragic Novel. D’Angelo Barksdale provides as on-point a summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book as you’ll ever hear — and it’s not a stretch at all to apply the moral of the story to O.J. Simpson:

“He’s saying that the past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it, all this s— matters. I mean, that’s what I thought he meant.

“Like at the end of the book, you know? Boats and tides and all. It’s like, you can change up, right? You can say you’re somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story. But what came first is who you really are. And what happened before is what really happened. And it don’t matter that some fool say he different, because the only thing that make you different is what you really do, what you really go through. Like, all them books in his library. He frontin’ with all them books. But if you pull one down off the shelf, ain’t none of the pages ever been open. He got all them books, and he ain’t read nay one of ’em. Gatsby, he was who he was and he did what he did. And ’cause he wasn’t ready to get real with the story … that s— caught up to him.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to think of O.J. as a Black Gatsby. Instead of fake books, he had “fake” pictures and paintings strategically hanging in his house during a jury tour in his 1995 trial. The running back who couldn’t be caught on the field was ultimately chased down, perhaps not by who he was but by what he was: a black man in America.

J.A. Adande is the director of sports journalism at Northwestern University and has been a staff writer at ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. He believes SiriusXM's FLY channel is one of the greatest developments of the 21st century.