WASHINGTON — Republicans rallied Thursday behind comments on race made by Sen. Tim Scott as part of his response to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress, embracing what they hoped was an effective message in an ongoing debate over the role of racism in America that has sometimes left them struggling to articulate a clear position.
Scott, delivering the official GOP response Wednesday, suggested that liberals are using race as a political weapon, defining all White people as oppressors and seeking to use the language of civil rights to rig elections.
“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, said in the televised GOP rebuttal to Biden’s speech. “It’s backward to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
Republicans, who have sometimes found themselves on the defensive in recent months when it comes to race, praised the South Carolina senator for addressing the notion that Democrats and Black activists are too quick to shout down those who disagree with them by calling them racists.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., said Scott did a good job articulating the role race plays in the current political climate.
“Clearly we have people in America who feel contempt for our country,” Kennedy said. “They should feel gratitude, but they feel contempt. There are people who believe that America was wicked in its origins and it’s even more wicked today. They believe that most Americans — at least White Americans — are racist and misogynistic and ignorant.”
Democrats generally treated Scott’s words with caution, but many Black activists, who publicly criticized Scott into the wee hours Thursday, deemed him the latest in a line of Black apologists who give political and racial cover to White grievance.
On Twitter, Scott was compared to figures like conservative commentator Candace Owens, who has spoken of George Floyd’s drug use and criminal history.
“Trotting out sycophantic Black folks who will serve as apologists for white supremacy is a tried-and-true tactic that racists have used for centuries,” said Bishop Talbert Swan, president of the Greater Springfield, Mass., chapter of the NAACP. He was among those who spent the hours after Scott’s speech tweeting using the #UncleTim hashtag, a derisive reference to Uncle Tom.
“These are your go-to people for white supremacists to put in front of Black people and say, ‘See, even your own people are saying we’re not racist, that America isn’t racist,’ ” Swan said.
Scott’s comments, and the ensuing furor, marked the latest twist in the debate over the role race plays in American society — and the role political leaders should play in eradicating the effects of prejudice.
Biden has said equity will be the lodestar of his administration, and he has vowed to play an active part in dismantling systemic racism. Congress is considering legislation that would protect minority voting rights and revamp a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets Black people.
Running through it all, as the Scott controversy shows, are competing premises about how far the nation needs to go to fix racial fissures — and how bad the problem still is.
Scott, who said he has personally experienced “the pain of discrimination” — being pulled over for no reason and followed around in stores — said too many people suggest the country has gained no ground when it comes to civil rights.
“From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress,” he said.
Republicans seized on the notion that Democrats are only too happy to criticize America.
Scott was able to “articulate that America has moved forward,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called Scott’s racial critique “beyond outstanding.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Scott’s words could make it easier for people to offer competing views about racially charged issues without the discussion becoming a question of character.
“Every argument [it] seems like we have in this country deteriorates, with somebody’s finger pointing and accusing somebody of being a racist, and that’s just — I mean, it’s a, it’s a cop-out,” Thune said. “And it detracts from having a really honest discussion, and frankly, maybe even an argument about the big issues of the day, if as soon as you disagree with somebody they’re a racist.”
Some Democrats fired back that they can call out racism and still love America.
“Well, first of all — no, I don’t think America is a racist country,” Vice President Kamala Harris said on “Good Morning America.” “But we also do have to speak the truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is currently enmeshed in negotiations with Scott over the shape of a policing reform bill, declined to detail his thoughts about Scott’s speech.
“I’m in negotiations with Tim Scott. I have nothing to say about his speech — I have something to say about our friendship,” said Booker, who is African American. “We’ve gotten a lot of very good things done together, and I appreciate that he’s an honest broker.”
Scott is the lead Republican negotiator as Congress tries to hash out the criminal justice bill, and other Republicans have signaled they are likely to follow his lead if he reaches a compromise with Democrats. He’s also a member of a Senate evenly divided between the parties, meaning Democrats and Republicans will likely have to compromise to pass the legislation.
But Scott is also a rarity, one of a handful of Black Republicans in a Congress where the great majority of Black Americans are Democrats and the great majority of Republicans are White.
The caution shown by some Democratic lawmakers in responding to Scott was a nod to the sensitive, often volatile nature of the debate on race.
During a call to Floyd’s family after the police officer who killed him was convicted, Biden promised to get something done on criminal justice reform. And in Biden’s joint address, he urged Congress to pass a reform bill before the anniversary of Floyd’s death. Harris was one of the sponsors of the bill that bears Floyd’s name.
But while many members of both parties say they want changes to policing practices, gaping fault lines remain. Republicans, for example, do not want to get rid of qualified immunity, a legal shield that often protects police officers from civil lawsuits if they kill someone in the line of duty.
“We’re trying to drive change. We’re trying to get police departments to up their game,” Graham said. “But we all still need to have a legal system to strike that legal balance.”
As lawmakers tried to hash out a deal to overhaul policing practices, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) met Thursday with relatives of four Black men who have died after encounters with police — including Floyd’s brother.
Asked about his message to the families as he left the meeting, Schumer said, “We’re with them.” He added that he wants a “strong, strong bill” — signaling that he was not ready to narrow the scope of the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a measure that is opposed by Republicans.
Attending the meeting were Philonise Floyd, Floyd’s brother; Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed in New York in 2014; Tiffany Crutcher, the sister of Terence Crutcher, who was killed in Tulsa in 2016; and Alissa Charles-Findley, the sister of Botham Jean, who was killed inside his Dallas apartment in 2018.
Also attending the meeting were civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Bakari Sellers, an attorney and former South Carolina state lawmaker.
“This legislation has my brother’s blood on it and all the other families’ blood on it,” Philonise Floyd said, adding that the family members came to the Capitol “to just get our point across and let them know that we’re hurting, we’re still in pain.”
Crutcher added that she believed “we have a huge opportunity to push this across the finish line. We can’t bring our loved ones back, but we can make sure that no one else has the same fate as my brother.”
After meeting with Schumer, the group headed to the office of another key senator in the debate: Tim Scott.