Looking at Peter Liang Through the Lens of the OJ Simpson Case

03/01/2016 12:43 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2017

Asian Americans, at least Chinese Americans, are paying attention to the Peter Liang case to the point of obsession. I listen to immigrants debating trigger pressure on service firearms, as they argue the rookie cop was singled out for shooting an unarmed African American in a New York City housing project two years ago. Liang, an Asian American like his sympathizers, is said to have become a scapegoat for the wrongs of whites who have discriminated against blacks since before the founding of the nation, without the same consequences of prosecution and conviction. I have started to hear him compared to OJ Simpson.

The former football player, turned Hollywood star, is in the news again. A television dramatization of the "trial of the century" is running a generation after he was found not guilty in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend. The proceedings -- from the low-speed chase of the white Ford Bronco down Los Angeles freeways to the catchphrase, "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit," -- captivated the public. The ongoing spectacle was interpreted as a racial morality play defining the era.

Simpson, an African American celebrity, was charged with double murder. His ex-wife was white.

Among the key witnesses was Mark Fuhrman, a Los Angeles police officer who also was white. He was alleged to be a bigot intent on framing the accused.

Simpson was represented by a "dream team" of lawyers, led by Johnnie Cochran. Judge Lance Ito, a Japanese American, presided.

Stepping back, the comparison of Liang and Simpson both makes sense yet seems strange. The situations are similar in key respects, but supporters of Liang seem to be ignoring what many would regard as the most important aspect of the Simpson matter: much of the public considered him then -- and even more so now -- to be guilty. He was subsequently found liable in a parallel civil suit, before being sent to prison in an unrelated kidnapping scheme. That means that any analogy between Liang and Simpson, invoked by Liang defenders, must highlight a feature other than Simpson being innocent.

It is true the cases are high profile. But even that has not been quite the same. Liang has been front page news in New York City and his face has become known to Asian Americans and African Americans. Perhaps the lack of interest by the general public, whites outside of the five boroughs, reflects indifference to the parties directly involved.

Among those who care, however, the case is polarizing. Like an optical illusion that generates two different images for two different viewers, both Liang and Simpson have produced a division. Yet here, too, Liang is not identical to Simpson. The opposing perceptions are among people of color, not between the majority (white) and a minority (black). As pointedly, Asian Americans have not displayed unity. Some Asian Americans, especially with progressive political backgrounds, are emphatically unwilling to back Liang -- they would advocate for equality achieved through investigation of all officer-involved shootings and other potential official misconduct.

The Liang and Simpson cases resemble one another in the figurative black-and-white choice they present. Each leads to a simple dilemma: innocent or guilty. The choice is misleading; it frustrates.

This is how Asian Americans might understand the predicament of Liang -- (and implicitly by extension, all Asian Americans). It need not be either-or. The Simpson precedent is useful. It was not logical, nor helpful for that matter, to suggest that Simpson was innocent of homicide or Fuhrman was innocent of racism. As each of them became a racial symbol, the plausible and even probable combination was lost: that both of them were guilty.

The most controversial observation is about the need for community. People need comforting, and people want to offer it. Those who are guilty look for refuge and support, and those who feel a bond reach out even if they are begrudged by others.

Asian Americans might not be aware of the comparable scene from the Simpson case. A television crew captured the announcement of the verdict as it was watched by African American students at historically black Howard University, in the basement lounge. When the jury foreman read the decision, the crowd applauded and cheered -- only to be reviled by white commentators and chastised by black elders.

For Asian Americans, Liang is about exclusion, throughout history continuing to today. For African Americans, it's not about Liang at all; it's about Akai Gurley, the deceased, who appears to have been altogether free of wrongdoing. For both Asian Americans and African Americans, the incident is about more than the single incident. The mirror image anger is rooted in past persecution and aggravated the sense of powerlessness, well beyond what happened during the patrol of a dimly-lit stairwell.

That is why criminal cases become so serious. They test our capacity for a shared narrative, the semblance of order. We yearn for a story that makes sense of it all, an impossible justice that somehow makes right everything else that has led us together to this moment of conflict.