The Race Factor in the Charleston Killings You Haven’t Heard

Charles D. Ellison
Dylann Storm Roof appears in a mug shot from an arrest in Columbia, S.C., prior to the massacre of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., of which he is now accused.  
Lexington County Sheriff's Department via Getty Images

If racial tables were turned and 21-year old Dylann Roof had been, say, 16-year-old Kalief Browder of New York City, nine people might be alive today.

The case of domestic terror at a Charleston, S.C., church almost three weeks ago is something of a cautionary tale on what happens when society fails to keep its white privilege in check. A look at Roof’s prior interaction with the criminal-justice system is typical of the more favorable treatment afforded white criminals simply because of their skin color, and this time a terrorist was put back on the street.


Just four months before the slaughter of nine parishioners engaged in Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Roof had already spent two days in jail on a drug-possession charge before his release on $5,000 bond.

Columbia, S.C., police arrested the creepy bowl-haircut teen with a pocket full of painkillers after he was stalking local mall employees and asking “unusual” questions. He was ordered to stay away from the mall and banned from the premises.


Had all cases truly been equal, there’s a chance that Roof would still be in jail—considering that only a month after his arrest he returned to the same spot. Yet quiet as the Columbia Police Department’s action is kept in this episode, it appears that Roof didn’t see the inside of a jail cell for the violation (although he did get a trespassing charge). Probably because, well, Roof didn’t look suspicious, like, say, Browder or Tamir Rice or Eric Garner or any number of other black men or boys who ended up either arrested, shot or choked on the spot for much, much less. Move on, nothing to see here.

Instead, Roof’s next few months were spent mapping out one gruesome act of terrorism while awaiting the court’s next move on a felony drug-possession charge. Imagine that.


Clearly, there are numerous unanswered questions for the local Columbia cops, prosecutor and judge who oversaw Roof’s felony case. But what’s clear is that Roof was afforded a level of heightened leniency that’s not all that surprising. As studies commissioned by the Pretrial Justice Institute show, had Roof been black, his $5,000 bond would have been, on average, 35 percent higher. Black defendants are also twice as likely to be detained while awaiting trial for a nonviolent drug arrest, since the pretrial system in most states relies heavily on cash for bail. According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, “Those held pretrial [because they couldn’t afford bond] receive harsher punishments than those able to purchase pretrial freedom.”  

So it’s very bet-your-bottom-dollar likely that had Roof been black, not only would he have been detained in the pretrial phase awaiting his fate, but he’d also be sitting up in a musty South Carolina prison convicted and sentenced.  


Now, sadly, apply the twisted race scenario to Browder, who took his own life after unsuccessfully coping with the horrors of New York City’s infamous Rikers Island for a crime he didn’t commit. Rikers would have never happened to a white 16-year-old happily minding his business when he was accused of stealing a backpack. Perhaps, even if—for argument’s sake—a white Browder had stolen the backpack he was accused of snatching by two conniving New York City cops, he’d be 10 times less likely to face arrest. According to a USA Today analysis of arrest records in 70 urban police departments across the nation, black people are arrested “at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black.”  

In New York City, according to a state attorney general report (pdf), nearly 1,400 blacks per 100,000 are stopped and frisked, compared with only a little under 200 per 100,000 for whites. It doesn’t stop there: “Racial disparities documented in stops continue through arrest, disposition and sentencing.” African Americans in the Big Apple charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, for example, are 50 percent more likely than whites to face a conviction.


Browder, innocent at 16, found himself trapped in a vicious circle of stop, frisk, then indefinite pretrial detention because (unlike Roof in Columbia) his parents couldn’t afford the $3,000 needed for release. Horrifically endless days and nights at Rikers ended three years later at the age of 19 when the Bronx County courts finally realized they’d made a hiccup. That was little consolation to Browder, who’d spent more than one year out of the three in solitary confinement.

In so many ways, the ever-widening and persistent racial gaps in police stops, arrests, bail and detention are directly responsible for two separate tragedies in two very different cities more than 700 miles apart. Two very different individuals: one clearly innocent and the other guilty as sin. Yet racist predispositions contributed to the writing of an ugly and deeply saddening script whereby presumptions of guilt and innocence were unjustly flipped. Lives could easily have been saved. The same hazardous system that snuffed them out is still alive and well, with no national recourse or calls for an equal standard in sight.


Despite the eventual dismissal of his case, Browder’s blackness ultimately found him hanging from his bedroom window in an apparent suicide. Roof’s whiteness gave him the luxury of bond and freedom, just enough wiggle room to kill nine innocent black people who invited him to sit down and pray.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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