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If Dylann Roof’s murder conviction was a win for racial justice, we need higher standards

The soft bigotry of low expectations for the legal system.

Cheryl Reifer looks at the memorial outside Emanuel AME Church JULY 31, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier in the morning, Dylann Roof, the shooter in the June 17 massacre was arraigned on 33 federal charges, including hate crimes.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist who killed nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, has been found guilty. He confessed to the crime, saying, “I went to that church in Charleston, and I did it,” so, legally speaking, there shouldn’t have been much doubt about what the outcome of his trial would be.

But realistically — especially through the eyes of people who have watched the deaths of a long list of black people every bit as unthreatening as those whom Roof massacred during their Bible study session go unpunished in recent years — there was.

Keep in mind that just last week, a jury concluded that it would not be able to reach a verdict in the murder trial of former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager, who was caught on video shooting Walter Scott as the 50-year-old black man staggered in the opposite direction. In what seemed to be among the clearest-cut cases of wrongdoing in the long list of recent instances of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, Slager wasn’t convicted. The judge declared a mistrial.

That result can be explained in part by the fact that juries rarely convict police officers, period. Of course, Roof wasn’t one. But more broadly, it was a reminder that although the criminal justice system will go through the same motions when a black person is killed as when a white person is, you can’t expect the same results.

There are reasons to doubt the outcomes of cases, like those of Scott and Roof, that appear to be open-and-shut. A recent Huffington Post article enumerated the many junctures in the criminal justice system where outcomes for black citizens are worse and harsher than for whites, for similar conduct: police stops, police searches, force used during arrest, pretrial release, prosecution charges, prison versus community service, federal court sentencing, and more. That’s because in the decision-making behind all of these disparities, there’s room for the personal racial biases of law enforcement officers, judges, and juries to shape results. It’s no surprise that numerous studies have shown that the race of the victim plays a role in the sentencing the perpetrator receives, with capital punishment more likely if the victim was white.

That’s why, while many court watchers celebrated the Roof verdict, sharing the news on Twitter with exclamations like “Finally!” and “Justice has been served!” others said they refused to be delighted over a result that, in a system in which race didn’t affect outcomes, would have been a foregone conclusion.

Harvard PhD candidate Clint Smith cautioned against arguments that the Roof verdict proved the fairness of the criminal justice system, arguing that occasional fair results in egregious cases are to be expected.

The next decision will be whether Roof is sentenced to death — and Smith added an aside that he was against the practice overall.

If one comedian’s gallows humor about that topic is any indication, a deep cynicism about the depth of racial bias — in Roof’s case and in the criminal justice system overall — remains.

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