One of the most attention-grabbing moments in the trailer for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was when several soundbites of characters talking about race started to overlap, from Johnnie Cochran admonishing Bob Shapiro for ignoring it to the prosecution blaming the defense for using "the race card," all culminating with a quote from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Simpson. But did O.J. Simpson really say "I'm not black, I'm O.J."? Well, there's no evidence that Simpson literally said that phrase, and the oldest citation I can find is a quote from sociology professor Harry Edwards in an HBO documentary, who said, "[Simpson's] sentiments were, 'I'm not black, I'm O.J.'" However, it seems that what Edwards puts into a snappy phrase is a sentiment that has been echoed by Simpson's actions.
Simpson was, obviously, always a black man, but it wasn't until he was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman — of which he was found not guilty — that his race seemed to become a national issue. Before that, it seemed like the rich, successful NFL player had bypassed racial scrutiny in the public eye (which is problematic on its own), but the investigation and trial changed everything. Thanks to events like a Time cover darkening his skin, Simpson was immediately seen differently than he would have been if he were white. So let's break down Simpson's relationship with race, since even though the quote from American Crime Story may not be accurate, Edwards certainly was right that the football player had a unique take on race.
The aforementioned HBO documentary includes Simpson saying "I'm a black guy, always been a black guy, never been nothing but a black guy," so it's not that he ever denied or ignored his race. But the documentary suggests that once he attended the primarily white University of Southern California in 1967, Simpson quickly learned to adapt to making white audiences, like his classmates, comfortable. It also seems to suggest that even though Simpson began to spend more time with white people, he retained the support of black audiences, though ESPN columnist Ralph Wiley argues that in his experience, the other elite black athletes he watched work with Simpson did not feel welcomed by him or any kind of race-based kinship, even calling his drive for success "dangerous."
By the time Simpson left his career in the NFL in 1979, he was wealthy and famous from his sports career, acting, and advertising deals. He also divorced his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, that year, and went on to marry Brown Simpson in 1985, who was white and 12 years his junior. There's an absurd anecdote relayed to NPR by American Crime Story actor Courtney B. Vance that during the 1995 trial, Johnnie Cochran had to "blacken up" Simpson's home, removing trappings of typically white wealthy pursuits like golf in favor of Afrocentric art and large photographs of his family before letting jurors examine the house.
From his rare quotes on the subject of race, it seems that Simpson never denied his black heritage in any way. But the sentiment of "I'm not black, I'm O.J." does seem to ring true of a man who spent much of his adult life in a primarily white, very wealthy community. And as The People v. O.J. Simpson shows, Simpson's trial became as much about his racial background as it did his fame.