Columbia, SC — FOR ANYONE WHO might be wondering, U. S. Sen. Tim Scott does not have horns.
I spotted no such devilish details when South Carolina’s newly appointed junior senator visited our editorial board last week. And to their surprise, African-Americans in attendance at one of Mr. Scott’s recent speaking engagements didn’t get a glimpse of horns either.
The senator said that after his speech, African-Americans received him warmly and expressed surprise that he indeed wasn’t the devil some had portrayed him to be. While they might not agree with his politics and aren’t likely to vote for him, they appreciated his upbeat message and expressed pride in his service.
I’m sure more than a few of us, particularly African-Americans, appreciate Mr. Scott’s appointment to the Senate as well.
I know. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter that he is a black Republican. In an ideal world, his ascension, while noteworthy, wouldn’t be historically significant or draw the suspicious questions or comments from fellow black citizens.
But that ideal world has never existed for us in South Carolina or America.
The fact is that when Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Mr. Scott, he went from being the only black Republican in Congress to becoming not only the first African-American to represent South Carolina in the Senate since Reconstruction, but also the first from the South since that time.
What’s the big deal? For roughly 250 years, this country relegated an entire race to less than human status, locking its members out socially, economically and politically. Out of bigotry and hate, it deliberately operated on a fraction of its collective brain power, talent and skills. Even after slavery, government, laws and law enforcement were used to disenfranchise African-Americans.
So when an African-American, or any minority, breaks another barrier, it’s a big deal because it signals progress. It says we’re maturing as a state and country; growing up and getting just a little closer to operating at full capacity, which is needed if we’re ever to reach our potential.
That said, black Republicans carry a unique burden in the African-American community. Not everyone will celebrate their gains. No matter how well-meaning, level-headed or pleasant they are, they are saddled with the fact that the GOP has long had a strained relationship with African-Americans and that many African-Americans are suspicious of black people who embrace Republicans’ brand of conservatism, often seen as being harmful to the interests of minorities or the poor.
The GOP has used heated rhetoric and essentially marketed itself as the white man’s party. Additionally, it aligned itself with some extremist, racist elements.
To be fair, the Democratic Party has its problems as well. More and more black voters believe the party pays lip service more than it listens and that it takes the black vote for granted. As a result, black voters don’t always get their due — until election time.
Frankly, I’ve always felt that black people ought to be active in both major parties. They shouldn’t be beholden to either.
That’s why I’m glad Tim Scott, a smart, driven, likable gentleman who has overcome many odds and doesn’t mind sharing his success story, is in the Republican Party. He doesn’t shy away from talking about growing up poor in a black community in North Charleston, the devastating effects of his parents’ divorce, his single mother’s tireless efforts to care for the family, flunking out of school and finding his way back, thanks to a mentor. Ultimately, he would get it together, graduate college and enjoy a successful career in the insurance business.
His compelling story, not unlike those of many other African-Americans who overcame tough circumstances to climb the ladder of success, allows him to connect with people across racial and socio-economic lines in ways that many of his fellow Republicans can’t.
Mitt Romney sure couldn’t do it, and it wasn’t just his wealth. It was his sometimes condescending and paternalistic approach, which was apparent in his “47 percent” comments.
Mr. Scott acknowledged that his party’s rhetoric must change. He insists that Republicans lost the Nov. 6 presidential election as much as President Obama won it. He said the party has the right message but has articulated it poorly.
While I don’t agree with some of his political positions, I certainly can relate to much of Mr. Scott’s personal story. And I wasn’t put off by his message of helping those who need to be helped and “unleashing opportunities” while having a government that lives within its means. “At some point, we have to figure out a way to reach the least of these,” he said.
He uses his personal experiences to convey his message and doesn’t — at least didn’t on that day — lob inflammatory bombs for the sake of it.
What can’t happen, he said, is for the Republican Party to deliver its message by broad-siding people with rhetoric suggesting that all they want is a handout.
The one thing that did give me pause was Mr. Scott’s suggestion that all the GOP needs to do is change its language and talk about issues in less threatening tones rather than modify some of its stances. If it’s going to be effective into the future, it’s going to have to move closer to the center.
The senator did say that Republicans must be willing to go places they’ve never been in order to reach more people.
Of course, the Republicans have made attempts, particularly over the last decade or so, to reach out to black voters. But they’ve lacked a real strategy as well as commitment.
And they’ve lacked compassion and authenticity, something I think Mr. Scott is capable of displaying.
He’ll get lots of opportunities to do so if Republican leaders are sincere about wanting to retool the party and reach a broader cross-section of Americans after the whipping they took in November. With about 80 percent of minority voters choosing President Obama, including 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian-Americans, Republicans are turning to folks such as Mr. Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to help stem the tide.
I find Mr. Scott refreshing. His story and his messaging just might help the GOP in its outreach efforts. Who knows? Maybe he’ll draw more African-Americans and other minorities into the party.
Of course, he’ll still have to deal with the suspicion many African-Americans have of black Republicans. But if he stays authentic, something tells me he’ll earn some respect and some friends, even if he doesn’t earn converts.
I mean, it’s not like the guy has horns or anything.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803)771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.