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U.S. Sen. Tim Scott defended the country's record on race as one of opportunity and optimism on Wednesday in response to President Joe Biden's first joint address to Congress.
The 15-minute speech by Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, comes at a pivotal moment for the GOP as they are looking to find holes in Biden's initial popularity while chipping away at Democrats' narrow majorities in Washington.
Biden didn't shy away from discussing the open wounds in the country in terms of racism, saying the greatest threat to the homeland is white supremacy.
Scott didn't downplay the country's racial and ethnic differences, but said Democrats ignore the country's strides over the past century for political and financial gain.
"Hear me clearly," he said. "America is not a racist country."
Scott used the GOP rebuttal to continue a theme he started earlier in the week about how there is unity in the country's diversity, claiming that Republicans have supported policies that have reformed the criminal justice system and opened the economy to all Americans regardless of race.
"Just before COVID, we had the most inclusive economy in my lifetime," he said.
"The lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, and a 70 year low nearly for women. Wages were growing faster for the bottom 25% than the top 25%. That happened because Republicans focused on expanding opportunity for all Americans."
Republicans controlled Washington in May 2018 when the African American unemployment rate dipped to 5.9%, for instance.
That was the lowest recorded rate by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1972, but Democrats and fact-checkers contend that trend began under former President Barack Obama.
Scott being chosen as the lawmaker responding to the president comes at a critical time for the country and the South Carolina senator, who is in the spotlight as the lead GOP negotiator for a proposal to overhaul police procedures.
Congress is currently grappling with how to best revamp law enforcement in the wake of the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict, and after months of protests demanding police department funding be diverted to other agencies in response to controversial police shootings.
As the debate about how police treat Black Americans has raged in the streets and halls of Capitol Hill, Scott has caught attention in recent years for Senate speeches where he has described troubling interactions with law enforcement.
He has talked publicly about being racially profiled, such as being threatened and disrespected by police during traffic stops. He most famously described being stopped by U.S. Capitol security as an elected official — even while wearing his official pin — as recently as 2019.
The 55-year-old Republican made that point again during his response to the president's address.
"I have experienced the pain of discrimination," Scott said while looking at the camera. "I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason and to be followed around a store while I'm shopping."
Scott said past efforts at police reform have either been blocked or ignored by Democrats, but that he hopes this time will be different. He emphasized how even after his experiences he believes "brave police officers in Black neighborhoods" shouldn't be viewed as enemies.
"We are not adversaries," Scott said. "We are family."
COVID-19 differences take stage
Biden's remarks, delivered just before his symbolic 100th day in office, were heavily marked with the country's massive vaccination effort to combat COVID-19.
"Go get vaccinated, America. Go and get the vaccination," Biden said. "They're available."
Scott gave credit to former President Donald Trump's administration for getting the initial doses out to the public. He also called attention to how last year Congress passed five bipartisan relief bills.
Tomorrow represents a uniquely American tradition. While we disagree, there is unity in our diversity.
I am ready to share the GOP message of hope and opportunity with the entire country! pic.twitter.com/qNf3MozUQM
— Tim Scott (@SenatorTimScott) April 27, 2021
"This administration inherited a tide that had already turned," he said. "The coronavirus is on the run!"
But the nation remains "heavy-laden" and anxious about the pandemic due largely to open questions about what life will look like in the coming months, Scott said.
Few issues has divided the country as much as a debate over school closures, which he said hurts the country's most vulnerable students the most.
"Our public schools should have reopened months ago," Scott said. "Other countries's did. Private and religious schools did. Science has shown for months that schools are safe."
Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control pointed out how multiple studies found little evidence of COVID-19 spreading in schools in the U.S. or other countries.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky backed up those findings in February when she said the scientific data indicates that schools can safely reopen even before teachers are vaccinated.
The Biden administration promised school reopenings but faced pushback from teachers unions. It released a five-step plan this week to safely get children back into the classroom, but Republicans have chastised how it doesn't take steps until the fall.
Scott called out the White House on the issue during his speech saying, "too often, powerful grown-ups set science aside, and kids like me were left behind."
The response touched on various other issues in the limited timeframe with Scott saying the president is a good man with good words, but has failed to lower the country's temperature by caving to left-leaning interests on a variety of issues.
Scott touched on how Republicans have worked with Biden and the Democrats, but warned of their coming "power grab" whether on infrastructure or calls to add new justices to the Supreme Court.
"Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams. It will come from you — the American people," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sen. Tim Scott says US isn't racist in GOP rebuttal to Biden address