1. They were operating out of an over-abundance of caution. We are talking about politicians, after all, and nobody wants to jump to conclusions that prove to be wrong — especially on such a sensitive topic. Even President Obama didn’t invoke the r-word — at least directly — in his remarks Thursday. Of course, Obama rarely uses that specific word. Instead, he referred to racism by citing “a dark part of our history” and said, “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
2. They know that their party is often pegged as the white party. And it is overwhelmingly white. Maybe they feared that any acknowledgement of racism — no matter how explicit or slight — would open some sort of invisible floodgate sending a lot of water the party’s way. And since the party has aligned itself with policies such as Voter ID and bans on Affirmative Action in higher education admissions, there’s a chance that whatever emerges from a more earnest discussion about racism would eventually be troublesome for their party. (And sure enough, we have now begun a full-scale discussion about how Republicans feel about the Confederate flag — an issue that has regularly beguiled GOP candidates.)
3. Perhaps they saw the Charleston shooting as an opportunity to begin a debate about religious liberty — an issue much more in their party’s wheelhouse.