Q&A: Sen. Tim Scott, GOP point person on police reform

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP
GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina speaks to reporters amid negotiations on the infrastructure bill on Capitol Hill in Washington Aug. 4, 2021.

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As the Senate’s sole Black Republican, Tim Scott has addressed incredulity about the prevalence of police discrimination, describing his own experiences from the Senate floor. Yet he also sees law enforcement as a “noble” profession. He’s been frank about racial issues, but has decried the political weaponization of race and declared that America is not a racist country. 

Last year, Democrats blocked his police reform bill in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, saying it didn’t go far enough. In recent months, Senator Scott of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey have been working together on new legislation. 

Why We Wrote This

What would police reform look like to a supporter of the police who has also experienced the sting of discrimination? For Sen. Tim Scott, it starts with not stereotyping anyone, including cops.

He sat down with the Monitor last week to discuss his vision for police reform and justice in America at a time of national reckoning – or, as he puts it, a national “wave of opportunity.”

“I don’t know that you can actually just put your sense of humiliation and disrespect in a corner and it doesn’t filter in,” Senator Scott says. “But you can have some really negative interactions [with police] and come to the conclusion that stereotyping them all is kind of like them stereotyping me.”

Sen. Tim Scott’s vivid socks stand out in a sea of black and gray on Capitol Hill, and so do his views on police reform. 

As the Senate’s sole Black Republican, he has addressed incredulity about the prevalence of police discrimination, detailing his own experiences from the Senate floor – including being held up by police on Capitol Hill, where senators normally move freely through security checkpoints without showing ID. 

Yet he also sees law enforcement as a “noble” profession. That’s shaped in part by having watched the sons of his influential youth mentor, a white Chick-fil-A operator, become police officers. And as someone raised by a single mother, whose safety he worried about as she would return home late at night from work, Senator Scott places a premium on safeguarding communities. He opposes defunding the police, taking particular issue with liberal activists who didn’t grow up in poor minority communities like his.

Why We Wrote This

What would police reform look like to a supporter of the police who has also experienced the sting of discrimination? For Sen. Tim Scott, it starts with not stereotyping anyone, including cops.

The senator from South Carolina, the grandson of an illiterate cotton picker who in 2014 became the first African American elected from the South to the U.S. Senate, has been frank about racial issues. He called out former President Donald Trump on numerous occasions – and won his support for spurring $75 billion worth of investment in low-income “opportunity zones.” Yet he has also decried the political weaponization of race and declared that America is not a racist country, prompting critics to call him an “Uncle Tim” or “house Negro.” 

Last year, Senate Democrats blocked his police reform bill in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, saying it didn’t go far enough. In recent months, Senator Scott and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat, have been working on new police reform legislation. They agreed to a framework for police reform in June, together with Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, who spearheaded passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in the House earlier this year. The senators are still chipping away at the details of their bill.

Senator Scott sat down with the Monitor in hot pink socks to discuss his vision for police reform and justice in America at a time of national reckoning – or, as he puts it, a national “wave of opportunity.” 

The questions and answers that follow have been condensed, and lightly edited for clarity. 

What has given you empathy for police officers?

This really is not only a noble profession when done right; it’s also a mission. 

When I was a senior in high school, I fell asleep driving my car down Interstate 26, flipped over, and went through the windshield. I remember lying on the side of the road, and a highway patrolman walked up to me to give me a little comfort and tell me things were going to be OK. That sticks in my mind – the power of an officer’s ability to do good, to show empathy in really hard times. 

And then I’m also educated and informed by the number of traffic stops I've been involved in where I'm just driving while Black. So, I have to weigh all that information through a filter of honesty and try to come up with solutions that address the issue fairly.

On a personal level, how have you worked through the anger and humiliation that many would feel in the face of police discrimination, in a way that doesn’t seem to have tainted your view of America?

What I shared on the [Senate] floor was a lifetime of really bad experiences. And at the same time I think having perspective about it all is really important. I don't know that you can actually just put your sense of humiliation and disrespect in a corner and it doesn't filter in. ... But you can have some really negative interactions and come to the conclusion that stereotyping them all is kind of like them stereotyping me.

I remember talking at the National Action Network run by Rev. [Al] Sharpton about being followed around a clothing store by this young lady. I have good peripheral vision because I used to be a running back, and I see her coming and I thought she was maybe someone who wanted to take a picture. (I was a senator at this time.) She was actually just making sure I wasn’t stealing anything. 

I said, “How many of y’all understand that?” They were all frustrated; you could feel the temperature going up. I said, “That’s exactly how a Republican feels when you walk into a room like this, because everybody’s stereotyping,” and they were like, “Oh, you got us.” 

We should all understand the sting of being stereotyped. So if I don’t want to stereotype, if I don’t want Black people to be stereotyped, and if I don’t want Republicans to be stereotyped, why would I stereotype all cops? It’s just unhelpful.

How do you think we as a country can achieve real justice, and do forgiveness and reconciliation play a role?

It's a good question. I will say that you cannot wait until you have justice to have forgiveness. I think about Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church shooting [in 2015] – 36 hours later, there was no justice ... but those nine family representatives all said [to the shooter], “We forgive you.” 

The path to justice does require reconciliation, but not one party to the other, but within one’s own heart. 

The justice system that we have here in America becoming more fair is really important. And that means being able to have self-awareness as a country. George Floyd brought that to us in a way that nothing else has in my lifetime. You heard and felt and sensed that people understood that the inconsistent application of our justice system leads to real dysfunction amongst our people.

In your book “Opportunity Knocks,” you talk about wanting to positively impact a billion people with a message of hope and opportunity. That’s obviously far more people than live in the United States. Do you see your work on police reform as helping not only our American family, as you call it, but also our global family?

Forgive me for being naive, but I do think who we are as Americans sets the pace for the rest of the world. I want to make sure that we export the best of who we are, for the rest of the world to see, and that includes our justice system.

What does it say when you can measure the outcomes by the color of your skin? It says something bad, or at least insidious.

To the extent that we’re able to improve the overall effectiveness of our justice system is to improve the overall fairness of our justice system. I feel like I’m called to that.

I want a fair justice system, but not one that seeks to discriminate against somebody else for the discrimination of the past. ... That’s not fair either. 

Speaking of feeling called, you considered going into the ministry at least twice, yet felt led to stick with politics. At this time of national reckoning, do you see yourself as ministering to a need for healing in our country?

I hope so. I have been intentional about that part. ... I want to be a bridge builder among the races. I've always felt that was part of my calling as well. 

From my vantage point, healing is an individual thing, more than a group thing. I do think sometimes we want an apology, especially on the racial front, for healing to begin. I think that’s probably not as helpful as we think it is. I think what’s helpful is for us to change the future, not the past.

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