In the wake of a week that magnified racial tensions in America, the nation’s sole black Republican senator stepped up to embrace those on both sides and point to a path forward.
Unusually, Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina gave three speeches on the Senate floor that addressed the tension between blacks and law enforcement. He ended on an optimistic note Thursday, despite today’s racial turmoil and sadness.
The seeds of his optimism, he said, lie in progress already seen – in his own life’s story and that of his state, where Charleston worshippers showed extraordinary forgiveness after a racially motivated church shooting last year.
“My story is a testament of God’s love, a mother’s love, and the love of my mentor,” said Scott, who is Christian and takes part in a weekly, bipartisan Bible study with a few senators on Thursdays.
Personal experience heavily influences political outlook and action, and so it is with the first black US senator elected from the South since the late 19th century. As a conservative and an African American, as the son of a single mom and as a youth who was mentored by a white owner of a fast-food franchise, Senator Scott offers a distinct perspective on race issues in Congress.
That came to the fore this week as Scott defended police heroism, testified to black anger and humiliation over unjust treatment, and then offered a hopeful host of legislative and other ways to move forward – many based on his experience in South Carolina. Even so, he emphasized that “the government cannot make us get along.”
“I think in one person, we have a singular bridge,” says Scott’s Republican colleague, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. People who feel estranged, as many African Americans do, can relate to Scott's experience, and so can strong supporters of law enforcement, Senator Cassidy says.
Indeed, his message has resonated on both sides of the aisle, and beyond Washington.
‘A frank discussion’ that went viral
In the Senate chamber on Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California sat at her desk focusing intently on Scott as he delivered his second speech, describing the seven times in one year he was pulled over by police, and the times he has been denied entry into congressional buildings, even while wearing his ID pin on his lapel.
The speech, which has gotten tens of thousands of views on YouTube, clearly moved Senator Boxer. She thanked him for his “frank discussion” and said hearing the personal stories of him and the Senate’s other African American, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, “is life-changing for us.”
It’s important that Scott is speaking out publicly, says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest civil rights organization. It was “chilling” to hear the senator’s account of a Capitol guard profiling him – a reminder that no matter what one’s station in life, profiling still occurs.
“Because he’s in the United States Senate, because he’s a member of the Republican majority, he’s got an ear,” Mr. Morial said. “I would hope he would say the same thing in the Republican caucus meetings to further educate and sensitize his colleagues.”
Though the South Carolinian is not one to wear the race issue on his sleeve, says Cassidy of Louisiana, when he does speak it has a powerful impact.
“In the last two years, I’ve heard him speak about it two or three times, but he always speaks about it so powerfully that it stays with me,” he says. “And I think about it, and it lingers … and I mention it to others.”
From nearly flunking, to statesman
Scott grew up poor in North Charleston, S.C., under the care of a strong single mom who worked 16-hour days as a nurse’s assistant. He nearly flunked out of high school, but was helped by the owner of a Chick-Fil-A franchise next to the movie theater where the young Scott worked.
The owner, John Moniz, hammered home values of hard work and personal discipline. He taught him that “having a job is a good thing, but creating jobs was even better,” said Scott at the GOP convention in 2012. Scott went on to college with a partial football scholarship, and later got into the insurance and real estate businesses.
He was elected to the Charlestown County Council, and went on to a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 2010 he beat the son of the state’s powerful former senator, Strom Thurmond, and the son of a former state governor for a seat in the US House.
With strong conservative credentials, particularly on finance issues, he was reelected in 2012 with 62 percent of the vote in a district that is about 70 percent white – and where the Civil War started, at Fort Sumter. GOP Gov. Nikki Haley appointed him to the Senate to fill a vacancy in 2013, and he was elected the next year to finish the term that ends this year. He’s running again.
‘The power of forgiveness’
Last year’s mass fatal shooting of nine black worshippers by a white man at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, and the near immediate forgiveness offered by families and friends of the victims, has had a profound effect on Scott as a senator.
The Charleston shooting spurred him on with legislation – his “opportunity agenda,” which he outlined in his speech Thursday. That includes a bipartisan effort to draw investment to depressed areas in the country, school choice, and a tax incentive for apprenticeship programs. He’s also sponsored police body-camera legislation with Sen. Booker, and supports bipartisan criminal justice reform, but both are stalled for now.
Like many others, he supports a greater effort at community policing and training to de-escalate tensions.
The Charleston massacre also featured in Scott’s speeches this week, which were prompted by the killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by white police officers, and were followed by the fatal shootings of five white Dallas police officers by a black man.
Scott told The Post and Courier of Charleston that he was “surprised” that more of his Republican colleagues didn’t put out statements after the two blacks were killed, while most of them did for the white Dallas officers.
“I still marvel at how our state responded to the shooting at mother Emanuel,” he said from the floor on Thursday. “The power of forgiveness; the power of love conquering hate.”
Like that response, Americans need to practice the scriptural teaching to love your neighbor as yourself, not just in word, but also with actions, he added. He cited the case of a black surgeon who struggled to save the Dallas officers’ lives but did not succeed. The surgeon makes sure his daughter sees him buying lunch or ice cream for police officers so she can see them interacting in a friendly way.
And Americans need to have a conversation as a family that involves truly listening to each other, which is more than waiting for the other person to stop talking. Scott said that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina and he plan to bring pastors and law enforcement together in Charleston County “so we can have an honest, sometimes painful conversation about how to move forward together."