Let's review the last 48 hours or so. In Charleston SC a white kid murdered nine black people, in a black church, in the most blatantly indisputable hate crime the U.S. has seen for a while. How many people expected the other shoe to drop last night? Strange to say, there's less a sense of pleasant surprise than we might have expected at the absence of violence -- of rioting and looting -- in Charleston last night. On some level I think that's because people didn't really expect it. Yet based on what we've seen and heard in the last year, you'd expect a lot of people to expect it. What did we hear, or read, ad nauseum about angry black people? "They look for any excuse to riot and loot." Could there be a more obvious excuse than the church massacre? Yet -- nothing. Some people have told me this was because they caught the killer promptly. Some might suggest that the real acid test will come with the kid's trial. I agree that the trail may prove a test, especially if people start demanding nothing less than an undiluted guilty verdict and nothing less than execution. But let's pause here and now for a moment to remind ourselves that the reactionary argument against black protest since last summer has been that black people will take advantage of any excuse to riot and loot. For the moment, Charleston proves them wrong.
Now let's make the most of this moment. It should not only refute the assumption that blacks will use any excuse to riot, but it should also compel us to reconsider why they have rioted in the recent past. If blacks in Charleston did not take advantage of this week's big fat excuse to riot and loot, does that mean that when they do riot, and even when they loot, it isn't just thuggish opportunism but also a conscious act of protest? When people assume that there was no riot in Charleston because the killer was caught, doesn't that imply that rioting (and looting) is a specific reaction to perceived injustice? The riots we have seen, after all, were provoked by killings by police, or by government's refusal to punish the killers. These things don't make it right for anyone to loot or vandalize, but the fact that the riots have been triggered by perceived abuses of power by public officers, while a crime more vicious than any recent shooting by police has not been answered with riots, should show that the riots, in all their deplorable messiness, have been political rather than criminal acts. They are responses to something wrong in our system of government and law, or to a widespread perception of wrong, and one or the other must be addressed by our political leaders. They should not be dismissed because some idiots decide to loot and burn stores. The restraint shown in Charleston so far makes the church massacre a clarifying moment, as long as it makes people think more carefully about how black Americans respond to violence and injustice. There's no excuse for us not to do so.