Will the GOP’s Lone Black Senator’s Wokeness Play Well With the White South Carolina Voters He Relies Upon?

Sen. Tim Scott
Sen. Tim Scott
Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein (Getty

It’s becoming a pattern: Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina speaking up more forcefully and clearly about race and racism, even challenging his white counterparts to be better.


The latest example came courtesy of an opinion piece Scott wrote for the Washington Post titled, “Why are Republicans accused of racism? Because we’re silent on things like this”:

When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole. They want to be treated with fairness for some perceived slights but refuse to return the favor to those on the other side.

Scott wrote the piece in reaction to comments from Iowa Republican Steve King, who essentially openly declared his allegiance to white supremacy during an interview with the New York Times.

There have been plenty of Republicans outside of D.C. who have spoken out against King, including the National Review, and even Ben Shapiro, whose disgusting take about the Trayvon Martin killing will forever rankle. It’s just that top Republican leaders and elected officials have yet to do the same, not even the great saint, newly minted U.S. senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, who wrote recently about the need to speak up on such things, at least when it comes to President Trump.

That’s why Scott has to fly solo because his white Republican colleagues don’t much care about rooting white supremacy out of their ranks, just as he had to when it came time to block a Trump nominee for a federal court whose record on voting rights was disgusting.

It is true that, as I’ve noted before, Scott has spoken up on problematic racial issues in the past, including passionately speaking out against racial profiling on the Senate floor a few years ago, in speeches in and around Myrtle Beach and Charleston, S.C., (which I personally witnessed), and helped bring down the Confederate flag from that state’s capitol building after Dylann Roof massacred nine black people. He helped push through the recent criminal justice reform law and has been trying to force the federal government to finally mandate that police departments must report every time they kill someone—something that is, bafflingly, not yet a requirement. And he and the upper chamber’s two other black senators helped ensure the Senate would pass an anti-lynching bill for the first time in U.S. history.


Every time Scott (rightly) speaks up, the starker the contrast between him and his white Republican colleagues comes into focus. That’s something for which white Republicans should be ashamed of and shamed for.

But it’s also true that Scott was so closely linked to former Sen. Jim DeMint in South Carolina that he became the first black man from the Deep South to win a U.S. Senate seat since Reconstruction while losing the black vote in his native state. He voted for Jeff Sessions for attorney general, a man who spent much of his tenure pulling back Obama-era reforms aimed at curbing police brutality and other kinds of abuses.


And, of course, Scott voted for and helped Trump get elected.

Still, because of everything he’s done since, he’s building a track record that might make me reconsider my pledge to not vote for him or his party for the foreseeable future—but also one that could turn off the white evangelical Christians who make up the bulk of his base. (I’d love to see the day when both major political parties are vying for the black vote. But right now, the Republican Party has been far too cozy with racism and racists. Remember, they made the bigoted birther-in-chief president.)


White people in South Carolina who love bragging that they backed a black, Christian man for the U.S. Senate—easier for them to “prove” that they can’t possibly be racist or have untoward thoughts about black people—will turn on him in a heartbeat if he makes them too uncomfortable by speaking too forthrightly and consistently against racism. I’m sure Scott knows this even if he wouldn’t admit it publicly. Every black person in the state knows it because many of us have experienced just that.

That’s why what Scott is doing is admirable. Being a black senator from California or New Jersey, you are required to be woke. Being one from South Carolina means making it seem as though you aren’t, even if you really are.

Bailey is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and author of the book, "My Brother Moochie: Reclaiming Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South." He's a husband and father.


Not Enough Day Drinking

When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole.

The man’s clearly just woken up from a coma that he fell into in 1962