“Hear me clearly, America is not a racist country. I have personally experienced ‘the pain of discrimination’ — being pulled over for no reason and followed around in stores.”
This contradictory statement was made by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina in 2021. Unsurprisingly, fierce reactions ensued immediately, with both sides of the political spectrum aggressively weighing in on social media. Hashtags such as #UncleTim, which were quickly removed from Twitter, and other intensely abrasive terms were hurled toward the senator from the left side of the political spectrum. The response from the political right was complimentary and endearingly laudatory.
While there were a number of things to take issue with Scott’s rebuttal, it was the comment that “America is not a racist country” that opened a Pandora’s box of commentary.
To be sure, Scott’s life is distinctive. In his rebuttal speech to President Biden’s first join address to Congress, he spoke about his upbringing and how he was raised in poverty by a single mother. Moreover, he is a darling son of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. He defeated the sons of the legendary, multiple-term, hard core segregationist Sen Strom Thurmond and the popular, former governor Carroll Campbell is revered by Donald Trump, and won election in what is the staunchest Republican state in the south, arguably in the nation.
The biggest problem is not Scott, even though his rhetoric is sometimes laced with intellectual dishonesty, but rather the frantic attempt by Republicans to convince others that they are not racist by employing conservative Black people like himself, including right-wing pundits Star Parker, Jason Whitlock, Candace Owens, Shelby Steele and Doreen Borelli to name a few. In essence, they provide cover for and espouse largely offensive commentary that many right-wing White conservatives do not dare to say in public. In other words, they tell racists what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.
This is not to say all Black conservatives demonize other Black people for profit. Republican strategist Raynard Jackson and the late Colin Powell are examples of Black individuals who resided on the political right of the spectrum yet had no problem calling out what they saw as the shortcomings of the conservative movement regarding its disconnect with large segments of the Black electorate.
As a Black person born and raised slightly above abject poverty in hyper-segregated South Carolina, this region has always been hostile toward governmental assistance regarding upward mobility, especially Black upward mobility, Scott is (or certainly should) be aware of the devastating impact that poverty, sophisticated or subtle discrimination, and lack of access to mainstream society can have on the victims of such social inequities and inequalities. Economic and structural racism are undeniable factors in the lives of many poor people of color.
The truth is that racism does exist in America. Most sane, rational and honest Americans know this, regardless of their race or ethnic background. The question is not whether America is a racist nation, but whether we need to utilize legislation, government programs and other forms of protection to target racism.
The fact is that Scott and other Black conservatives, especially those over 45 years of age, know this all too well. But instead of acknowledging such brutal facts, they resort to espousing and promoting a dangerously misguided form of “bootstrap politics” that too often places the responsibility for change on those who are being disregarded and marginalized. The truth is one must have boots to be able to strap them. Such old-fashioned, “buck up, forge forward, rugged individualism” language is filled with nothing but empty platitudes. It’s a disturbing act to witness to see these far-right Black conservatives resorting to the “blame the victim” mindset.
No reasonable person can deny that systemic and systematic racism are potently repulsive forces in American life. They are evident in our health, educational, environmental, judicial and political systems. There is far too much concrete evidence to indicate otherwise. Deep down, more than likely, Scott and other Black conservatives (as well as their White conservative cohorts) know this to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University.