The Republican Party put forward one of its most ascendant and interesting figures to respond to President Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday, giving Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina the microphone.
In a speech that clocked in at just under 15 minutes, Scott portrayed President Biden as someone who “seems like a good man” but is nonetheless dividing the nation by pursuing major legislation like the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill in March without Republican support.
Scott argued that the Biden administration’s accomplishments in fighting COVID-19 were largely due to efforts made in the Trump presidency. “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” he said.
He also faulted states where schools remained shut down into this year. “Powerful grown-ups set science aside and kids like me were left behind,” he said.
And he used his own personal story — son of a single mother, grandson to an illiterate Black man who was forced to pick cotton — to empathize with racial minorities. He lamented racism, while also condemning Democrats for their approach to the issue.
“America is not a racist country,” he said, after sharing that he has experienced racism himself.
He did, however, talk about the concept of “redemption” and “original sin” in the context of racism, implicitly acknowledging America’s reliance on chattel slavery to build itself up from the very beginning of the nation’s history, but signaling that he does not believe racism defines the nation’s present or future.
Scott, 55, has been a breaker of barriers in many ways. He is the first African American U.S. senator from South Carolina and was the first Black person elected to the Senate from a Southern state since Reconstruction. Originally appointed to the Senate in 2013, he became only the seventh African American elected to the upper chamber of Congress in American history in 2014. He is one of only three Black Republicans out of 263 members of that party in Congress.
Now, as Scott faces reelection in 2022 to what would be a second full term (his last, according to a pledge he recommitted to in 2019), and questions about whether he will run for president in 2024, he is a somewhat paradoxical figure in American politics.
President Trump took the Republican Party in the direction of nativism and hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement, and right-wing extremism — some of it grounded in explicit white supremacy — grew demonstrably in response to his brand of politics. At the same time, Trump did better with Black voters in 2020 — and particularly with Black men — than GOP presidential candidates tend to do.
When Scott spoke at the 2020 Republican convention, he focused on economics and school choice, and gave Trump modest praise. But he did use escalated rhetoric to attack Democrats, in a break from his typically more conciliatory approach. “If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia, and history has taught us that path only leads to pain and misery,” Scott said.
Another challenge for Scott: After the 2020 election, Trump’s campaign of lies regarding voter fraud left much of the GOP pushing for stricter voting regulations in many states, including Georgia, opening the party up to renewed criticism that they want to make voting harder for people of color.
Yet in addition to his gains with Black voters, Trump also did better with Latino voters than either Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008. That meant support from those groups, especially Black Americans, went from very little to a little more. But it has still caused some Democrats — a party increasingly dependent on affluent white liberal voters — to examine their own party for signs of excess in how it deals with culture war and racial issues.
Scott has at times been willing to criticize Trump on racial issues. But he also voted to acquit Trump during the Senate impeachment trial that focused on Trump’s role in inciting the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol as Congress certified the results of the 2020 election.
But Scott did not vote against certifying the results, refusing to join eight other Republican senators — and 139 House Republicans — who with their votes perpetuated Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was rigged. And since that vote Scott has come under criticism from Republicans in his staunchly conservative home state of South Carolina.
He has also signaled that he may run for president, and has started reaching out to big-money donors traditionally associated with funding a national candidacy, according to one source familiar with his political operation.
Scott’s vote to uphold the 2020 election is one of several ways in which he has bucked the far-right wing of the GOP. He has walked a fine line on the issue of race, but has not shied away from the topic.
In 2016, Scott began to speak out in a way he hadn’t before, prompted by police killings of Black men, which then was met with targeted shootings of police. On July 5, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by two white Baton Rouge police officers. The next day, 32-year old Philando Castile was shot and killed in his car by a police officer in Minnesota. And on July 8, Micah Johnson, a black military veteran, shot and killed five Dallas police officers. Three more police officers were killed on July 17 in Baton Rouge.
On July 13, Scott walked to the Senate floor and spoke about a “deep divide between the black community and law enforcement.” Scott went on to recount a series of specific examples where he felt he had been targeted by law enforcement because of the color of his skin. He shared that he had been pulled over by police seven times in one year for what he called “trivial” reasons.
“This is a situation that happens all across the country whether we want to recognize it or not. It may not happen a thousand times a day, but it happens too many times a day,” Scott said. “And to see it as I have had the chance to see it helps me understand why this issue has wounds that have not healed in a generation.”
A year later, after white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, then-President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” there, even as he condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Trump supporters have over time defended his comments about Charlottesville, but Scott called the president’s comments “indefensible” and said Trump had compromised his moral authority.
That prompted a call from the White House, asking Scott to meet with Trump to talk about the issue. There, Scott said, he talked the president through issues of racial discrimination and explained why he found the response to Charlottesville so offensive. “What can I do to be helpful?” Trump asked Scott, according to the senator.
Scott was ready with an answer. He had been working on an idea called “Opportunity Zones,” designed to attract significant investment and capital to low-income areas through tax breaks as long as the money stayed for seven to 10 years, and on the condition that it go toward creating something that would bring vitality to those areas, such as new housing or retail.
When George Floyd was killed, Scott pushed back against those who denied that systemic racism exists, though he avoided using that term. Scott said that “to suggest that there aren’t racial challenges and patterns is for someone to be blind.”
In an interview with Yahoo News at the time, he referred to “a system that leads to an unjust outcome.”
“If you have a system that leads to an unjust outcome, and that system is a system of authority, that means you’re breaking the back and breaking the spirit of millions of people in your country who see that unjust system and say, ‘It will rain down upon me, guilty or not guilty,’” Scott said. “That does not lead to a society of order. It leads towards a society of chaos.”
Scott then led a push for police reform, pushing one bill that would create national databases for police shootings and another that would mandate the government track deaths in police custody. He named one bill after Floyd and the other after Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in North Charleston in 2015.
When former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted this month of murdering Floyd, Scott applauded.
“There is no question in my mind that the jury reached the right verdict,” Scott said.
“While this outcome should give us renewed confidence in the integrity of our justice system, we know there is more work to be done to ensure the bad apples do not define all officers — the vast majority of whom put on the uniform each day with integrity and servant hearts. We must all come together to help repair the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and Black and minority Americans.”
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