WHILE TIM Scott’s election to the U.S. Senate Tuesday was historic, it hardly signals that we now live in a post-racial South Carolina.
We know better. Practically every major issue that passes through our State House — from education to health care to the selection of judges — has racial undertones.
That said, Mr. Scott’s election as this state’s first African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate and the first black elected to statewide office since Reconstruction represents undeniable progress. Many alive today thought they would never live to see South Carolina elect a black person statewide.
And let’s keep it real: Many black folks were hoping that when it did happen that it would be a Democrat. But in this GOP-dominated state, it was bound to be a Republican.
For roughly 250 years, this country relegated an entire race to less than human status, locking its members out socially, economically and politically. Even after slavery, government, laws and law enforcement were used to disenfranchise African-Americans.
So when an African-American breaks a barrier of the kind Mr. Scott just eclipsed, we should celebrate the progress. While we still have a ways to go, this is another step toward our nation becoming a more perfect union.
Mr. Scott’s ascension was greatly aided by Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first female governor, who appointed him to keep the Senate seat warm in 2012 following former Sen. Jim DeMint’s resignation. With Tuesday’s win, Mr. Scott earned the right to serve out the remaining two years of an unexpired term.
But what does this mean beyond the fact that a black person has finally gotten elected statewide? I don’t know exactly, but here’s what I do know: Mr. Scott has a unique opportunity — armed with a compelling story and the skill to effectively communicate it — to help begin building bridges between the Republican Party and African-Americans and poor people.
Mr. Scott is well-liked among Republicans and is seen as the future of the party as it tries to diversify its ranks and broaden its message to reach minorities. The party has been attempting to lure minorities for years with little to show for it.
Although many African-Americans look warily at black Republicans, many black citizens — though they might disagree with him — appreciate and identify with Mr. Scott’s personal story and optimistic message.
Mr. Scott, an intelligent, likable gentleman, eagerly tells the story of how he grew 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. He got his act together, completed college and enjoyed a successful career in the insurance business.
His story, not unlike those of many African-Americans who overcame tough circumstances to climb the ladder of success, allows him to connect with people across racial and socioeconomic lines in ways that many of his fellow Republicans can’t.
Chances are slim that many blacks will flock to the Republican Party, but if Mr. Scott can get people of different races and parties and opposing views to sit down and consider ways to work together to move South Carolina and this nation forward, the history he would make could overshadow the history he has made.
Isn’t that really what this is all about — bringing people together under a common government to work through and beyond their differences for the greater good?
Something tells me it’s not Mr. Scott’s life goal to simply be a good Republican or loyal African-American. During his editorial board visit with us last month, it was clear he wants to make a difference.
In as much as he supports his party, he talks a lot about hope and optimism and providing children and adults alike with opportunities to build better futures. He uses his story as a way to make connections, motivate and inspire.
While he makes it clear he’s a conservative, he doesn’t engage in the offensive, insulting rhetoric so prevalent today. He said he’s open to working with others to find solutions. As a matter of fact, he said he has found it easy to work with others of different parties and ideas. He has worked with Democratic U.S. Sen. Corey Booker in support of apprenticeship programs for high school students and with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy on education reform proposals. And he has been praised for introducing a Senate resolution encouraging businesses to voluntarily adopt a rule that would increase hiring of minorities for corporate executive positions and for vendor contracts.
Obviously, Mr. Scott can’t single-handedly resolve the long-strained relationship between African-Americans and the Republican Party. But perhaps he can facilitate some of the frank conversations that long have needed to happen but have been deliberately avoided: conversations about race, affirmative action, immigration and other touchy subjects that many people seem unwilling or unable to have in a civil, honest manner aimed at establishing common ground.
I say all this knowing that his toughest job could be reaching black people. The fact is that black Republicans — Colin Powell is an exception — aren’t celebrated among African-Americans the way their Democratic counterparts are because of the GOP’s poor relationship with African-Americans. Many black citizens 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’s heated rhetoric, the way it has marketed itself as the white man’s party and its relationship with extremist, racist elements have repelled most African-Americans.
A strong strand of conservatism exists among many African-Americans, particularly on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and religion. Yet the GOP has never been able to make any real headway with black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic because that party gives them a seat at the table.
But black voters have good reason to question their relationship with the Democratic Party, which too often takes them for granted. I've always believed that African-Americans need to be represented in both parties to raise their political effectiveness.
So I’m glad Tim Scott is a Republican, although I don’t agree with some of his positions. He makes sense when he talks about 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 during one visit with our editorial board. He talks about the need for Republicans to deliver their message without belittling or offending people with rhetoric that suggests all they want is a handout.
We can’t know exactly what Mr. Scott’s impact will be. But if he wants to be more than the answer to a trivia question, he must seize this historic moment and unique opportunity to make a real difference.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.