In response to President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last week, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) saved some of his sharpest and most disingenuous comments for the subject of race.
Scott suggested Biden was not living up to his call for the country to unify, saying that the Democratic president and his party aren’t reaching for common ground but are instead “pulling us further and further apart,” particularly on racial issues.
“Nowhere do we need common ground more desperately than in our discussions of race,” said Scott. “I know firsthand our healing is not finished.”
Scott suggested Democrats sought to define people by the color of their skin in the same way that Americans a century ago were told that “if they looked a certain way, they were inferior.”
“Today kids are being taught that the color of their skin defines them again, and if they look a certain way they’re an oppressor,” Scott said. “From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all, by doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.”
Scott was picked jointly by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to deliver the Republican response. The assignment frequently goes to public figures with national ambitions. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivered the GOP response in 2013 and made a run for the presidency three years later.
Scott, a 55-year-old, 10-year veteran of Congress, is being watched to see if he has similar plans.
For this reason, Scott’s comment on race takes on special significance.
Scott’s personal story of rising from a low-income family to Congress is admirable, but his views on race are misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.
“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” said Scott.
But Biden never said America was a racist country. This is a strawman argument by Scott to appeal to the Republican base.
What Biden has done was point out the fact that racial inequality still exists in America.
Racism is still a serious problem in key sectors of U.S. society, particularly in the criminal justice system and more specifically in policing.
Identifying racism is not racism as some conservatives now suggest. Identifying racism is also not a partisan issue. The FBI and nonpartisan groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have identified white supremacist groups as a growing threat. Are they being racist by pointing this out?
Asked last Thursday about Scott’s comment, Vice President Kamala Harris told ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “No, I don’t think America is a racist country, but we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country.”
She added: “One of the greatest threats to our national security is domestic terrorism manifested by White supremacists. These are issues that we must confront, and it does not help to heal our country, to unify us as a people, to ignore the realities of that.”
How can Scott talk about “the pain” of repeatedly being pulled over by police while driving, and downplay race as a significant problem?
Scott suggested that Democrats and liberals have turned the race issue upside down.
“It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” he said, without providing examples of what he meant. “And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
It is not clear what Scott is talking about, but conservatives have pointed to Affirmative Action as an example of “fighting discrimination with discrimination,” or reverse racism. This argument is historically inaccurate. Colleges and employers are asked to consider race as a factor in hiring because of the nation’s past and existing racial discrimination.
Affirmative Action is also not some wild liberal idea.
Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, was a champion of Affirmative Action, and its core principles have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, major college presidents and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, not just liberals.
The timing of Scott’s comments could not be worse.
Scott’s speech came as he is playing a leading role in bipartisan negotiations over police reform legislation, a nationwide problem in which race plays a central role.
His speech came during a time when Republican state legislators across the country are pushing voter-suppression measures targeting Black and Hispanic people.
Scott’s speech downplaying racism in the U.S. follows four years of one of the most racially divisive presidents in history. Even Scott at times called out former President Donald Trump in measured tones over some of his racially offensive remarks.
Yet he’s remained a strong supporter of the former president and opposed Trump’s removal from office after the House impeached him for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Scott’s willingness to overlook the serious flaws of a demagogue unfit to be president and downplay systemic racism makes him the wrong messenger on race.