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.
#DylanRoof was just found guilty on all 9 murder charges. Not going to let myself be happy about it because that's how it is supposed to be.— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) December 15, 2016
That so many react w/ elation & disbelief at the condemnation of #DylannRoof is actually quite saddening, we're so starved of justice.— Guilaine Kinouani (@KGuilaine) December 15, 2016
Dylann Roof was an easy case for conviction. We need a justice system that can also convict a George Zimmerman or a rogue police officer.— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) December 15, 2016
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.
Be wary of those who will use the conviction of Dylann Roof as a way to legitimize the efficacy & fairness of the criminal justice system.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
The existence of the criminal justice system necessitates exceptions ppl can use to suggest that the system works, even though it doesn't.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
It's the same idea used around racism. White supremacy necessities an Oprah & an Obama it can point to and say "Look! Race doesn't matter!"— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
Using exceptions to the rule to claim that systems at large serve people fairly is a hallmark of oppressive systems. It's how they subsist.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
It shouldn't take one of the most egregious crimes in American history to convict someone for killing unarmed black people. But here we are.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
The next decision will be whether Roof is sentenced to death — and Smith added an aside that he was against the practice overall.
I should also say, as I have said before, I don't think Dylann Roof should receive the death penalty. I don't believe anyone should.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) December 15, 2016
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.