Scott speech on institutional racism: "I have experienced it myself"

Perhaps this might best be described as a “Nixon goes to China” moment. Republican Senator Tim Scott (SC) has been a conservative favorite, a stalwart on free markets and fighting government encroachment on property and liberty. Scott is also the first African-American elected to the US Senate from the South since Reconstruction in either party. If anyone can bring people together to recognize the fact that different groups experience law enforcement in much different ways, it’s Tim Scott — and in a remarkable speech yesterday on the Senate floor, that’s exactly what he did:

“The good Lord has given me a soapbox, and I’m going to use this soapbox to talk about what needs to be spoken about,” he told his home town newspaper this week. On Tuesday, Scott praised the sacrifices of police officers; on Wednesday he described the worst of seven humiliating incidents with the police since winning public office that had humiliated him.

“The vast majority of time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some reason just as trivial,” Scott said. “Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.”

Another time, Scott said, he was entering one of the Senate’s offices wearing the pin that identified him as a member of Congress. An officer stopped him, demanding his identification.

“I was thinking to myself: Either he thinks I’m committing a crime, impersonating a member of Congress, or what?” Scott said.

That incident elicited the third call Scott has received from Capitol police to offer an apology for misidentifying him.

“This is a situation that happens all across the country, whether we want to recognize it or not,” Scott said near the end of the speech. Part of the reason why it doesn’t get more recognition is that many people don’t experience it because the bias doesn’t apply to them. Those who listen carefully certainly can find out, though, and even growing up in Los Angeles I had friends who got pulled over for similar circumstances that Scott describes here. A close friend of my mother had a son with a red sports car who routinely got stopped by the police, but rarely ended up with a ticket. That was thirty years ago in an area that never had the legacies of slavery or Jim Crow, either.

It’s also easier to dismiss when the only people telling the stories are people already opposed to one’s political values, or to people telling the stories in confrontational manner. Having Scott discuss them opens these experiences up to a much wider audience, perhaps especially because — as Dave Weigel notes in his Washington Post article — Scott has been reluctant to make himself a central figure in this issue. That’s changed, and it gives Republicans and conservatives a real chance to enter this debate honestly and engage communities where they have been reluctant in the past to do so.

“Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another,” Scott concludes in his most powerful argument, “does not mean it does not exist.”