Tim Scott is a conservative Republican senator from South Carolina. He also happens to be a black man. That rare combination would seem to make him a natural and much-needed mediator between his party and minority voters, but it is a role that Scott himself has tried hard to downplay, for example by refusing to join the Congressional Black Caucus. If his race is nonetheless part of his political identity, it is not because Scott has sought it out, but because others insist on thrusting that image upon him.
But in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Scott cast all of that aside and went deeply personal. Among other things, he recounted some of his own too-numerous experiences with law enforcement, repeating the type of testimony that we’ve heard from many other successful black men, such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. To those of us without that first-hand experience, the consistency of these stories is remarkable.
“I shuddered when I heard Eric Garner say ‘I can’t move’,” Scott confessed to his fellow senators. “I wept when I watched Walter Scott turn and run away and get shot and killed. And I broke when I heard the 4-year-old daughter of Philando Castile’s girlfriend tell her mother ‘It’s OK, I’m right here with you’. These people are lost forever — fathers, brothers, sons.”
For those who might have forgotten the name “Walter Scott,” this scene should remind you:
The senator and the murder victim were not related, but they shared more than a last name. That shooting from April 2015 occurred in North Charleston, S.C., the community where Tim Scott was born, so it must have literally struck home for him. (Scott also might have added the name of Atlantan Deravais Rogers to that list of victims.)
“While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm,” Scott told the Senate, “I have, however, felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself. As a former (black) staffer … told me, there is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not.”
Too many white Americans continue to discount or dismiss such testimony, not wanting to accept the reality of it or its implications, afraid that if they accept it something will be asked of them. They’ve been stopped by police too, they’ll say. Back in their youth, they too had a lot of brushes with the law. But as Scott pointed out, this is something different. He, a U.S. senator, has been pulled over seven times in the last year alone, almost always for no discernible reason.
On one occasion in the past year, an officer pulled him over because he thought the car that Scott was driving must have been stolen.
“I started to ask myself — because I was smart enough not to ask him, asking myself — ‘is the license plate coming in as stolen? Does the license plate match the car?’ I was looking for some rational reason that may have prompted him to stop me on the side of the road.” There wasn’t one.
He talked of his brother, a command sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank in the Army, who was stopped by a police officer who thought he must have stolen the Volvo that he was driving. He talked about a former staffer who drove a nice new Chrysler 300, but who felt forced to sell the car because police officers were repeatedly, constantly pulling him over, believing the car must be stolen.
“Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops,” Scott pleaded.
He also recalled his experiences as a U.S. senator, on Capitol Hill, dealing with the Capitol Hill police who have harassed him or refused to believe that he was who he is. The most recent incident occurred a year ago, after he had served in Congress for five full years.
“Later that evening I received a phone call from (the officer’s) supervisor, apologizing for the behavior,” Scott said. “That is at least the third phone call that I’ve received from a supervisor or the chief of police since I’ve been in the Senate.”
As President Obama did in his beautiful speech in Dallas, Scott stressed the importance of supporting law enforcement and of recognizing the many difficulties and dangers of their work. There is never, ever an acceptable reason for harming those who put their lives on the line for us, he said. However, there is also no acceptable reason for ignoring that we have a major problem to solve.
“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. And to see it as I have had the chance to see it helps me to understand why this issue has wounds that have not healed in a generation. It helps me to appreciate and understand and hopefully communicate why it’s time for this American family to have a serious conversation about where we are, where we’re going and how to get there. We must find a way to fill these cracks in the very foundation of our country.”
“I simply ask you this: Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear. It simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable. Some search so hard to explain away the injustice that they are slowly wiping away who we are as a nation. But we must come together to fulfill what we all know is possible here in America: Peace, love and understanding. Fairness.”
That’s the core of it right there. By this point, after all this, if you still insist on dismissing the evidence that something important is going on and needs to be addressed, then that growing pile of evidence becomes taller still when your own denial is added to it.
Here is Scott’s full speech: