Meet the Press already had a segment about gun violence in the works when the Charleston church massacre happened last week: a video of inmates at Sing Sing saying what they'd tell their younger selves "that could have made them put down the gun." The network evidently felt Charleston was a perfect newspeg for the piece, since host Chuck Todd led in to the story by talking about the assault and then saying this:
The circumstances you are about to see are very different from the racist violence in Charleston. In this case, the inmates are African American that you're gonna hear from. But their lessons remain important, and we simply ask you to look at this as a color-blind issue, about simply gun violence.
The complaints came so quickly that Todd felt the need to issue a not-very-apologetic explanation for the report. (Sample line: "As I say to all audiences, Meet the Press should make all viewers uncomfortable at some point or we are not doing our job.") Nothing in his comments erased the fact that his show's reaction to a white racist murdering nine black people was to declare the larger issue "color-blind" and air a report about black criminals. This is the genteel liberal counterpart to a conservative in a comment thread sputtering "B-b-but what about black-on-black violence?"
Todd isn't the only figure to get caught off guard like this, leaping so quickly to treat this as a gun story that he trips over the racial angle. Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made a similar mistake last week on Morning Joe, coming prepared to talk about his gun-control proposals (even though they probably would not have stopped the Charleston attack) and stammering when asked about the shooter's racist motives (even though they were the reason for the Charleston attack). Speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday, O'Malley seemed determined not to repeat the mistake. He condemned the killer's racism, inserted a call for South Carolina's government to stop flying a Confederate flag, and tried to coopt the "black lives matter" slogan:
One of the sad triumphs of white racism is the degree to which it has succeeded in subconsciously convincing so many of us—black and white—that somehow black lives don't matter. If the thousands of young men killed by gun violence every year across America were young, poor, and white rather than young, poor, and black, it is hard to imagine that our Congress would continue to block common sense measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
Needless to say, this not only presupposes that his proposals will actually reduce that violence; it ignores whether such a crackdown will add to the number of young, poor, and black people caught in the maw of the carceral state. (The latter point is often raised not just by the libertarians you'd expect to hear it from, but by a number of voices on the left who have no fondness for guns but also no illusions about how the criminal justice system functions in practice.)
But it's an interesting bit of positioning. In an election where several candidates have offered at least pro forma criticisms of mass incarceration and police abuse, O'Malley has been at a disadvantage, given his record as mayor of Baltimore. (The city wound up paying an $870,000 settlement for unconstitutional arrests conducted during his tenure.) Yoking anti-racist rhetoric to his law'n'order proposals might help him get out from under that shadow. But not if people like Chuck Todd keep dropping the mask.