Sen. Scott responds: "America is not a racist country"

“What’s going on here? A Washington power grab,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) declared in the official GOP response to Joe Biden’s speech to the joint session of Congress. Biden promised to bring America together, Scott argued, but has instead pursued “agendas that tear us apart.” And nowhere is that more true of Biden and Democrats, Scott declared, than on the issue of race.

Yes, it’s true that racism exists in America, Scott tells viewers, because he’s experienced it himself. Very recently, as he points out, and from the same political side that wants to make everything about race. You cannot end division with more division, and the past is not the present or the future unless we let it be:

I have experienced the pain of discrimination. I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason. To be followed around a store while I’m shopping. I remember, every morning, at the kitchen table, my grandfather would have the newspaper in his hands. Later, I realized he had never learned to read it. He just wanted to set the right example.

“I’ve also experienced a different kind of intolerance. I get called “Uncle Tom” and the N-word — by ‘progressives’! By liberals! Just last week, a national newspaper suggested my family’s poverty was actually privilege because a relative owned land generations before my time. …

When America comes together, we’ve made tremendous progress. But powerful forces want to pull us apart. A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic — and if they looked a certain way, they were inferior. Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them — and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.

From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress. By doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal. You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.

Perhaps racism is America’s original sin, Scott allows, but that isn’t our destiny:

Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams. It will come from you — the American people. Black, Hispanic, white and Asian. Republican and Democrat. Brave police officers and Black neighborhoods. We are not adversaries. We are family! We are all in this together.

And we get to live in the greatest country on Earth. The country where my grandfather, in his 94 years, saw his family go from cotton to Congress in one lifetime. So I am more than hopeful — I am confident — that our finest hour is yet to come. Original sin is never the end of the story. Not in our souls, and not for our nation. The real story is always redemption.

It’s a powerful speech, much more personal and value-driven than normal State of the Union responses. (Again, technically this wasn’t technically a SOTU, but the trappings were identical.) Scott turned out to be a wise choice for a fraught moment, with Scott uniquely positioned to deliver on this argument for unity rather than policies and attitudes of segregation. While racism still exists in the hearts of some Americans, government can’t reach to that level — and the attempts to do so only make the situation worse by cementing the idea that race is destiny. Government’s role in this debate is to ensure equal protection under, and equal application of, the law. Scott’s speech reminds us of that reality, and the corrosive direction we have taken over the last few years in creating this idea that color is destiny and that redemption is impossible. The alternative is a dead end, as we have seen over the past year.

It’s worth noting too that Scott departed from the usual formula of SOTU responses. Normally, the response speech attacks the policies of the administration and lays out the opposition’s agenda for the next year as an alternative, usually tied to the next election. Scott touches on this, but mainly in contrasting Biden’s proposals to the previous administration, and even then only briefly. Only on infrastructure did Scott get specific at all on current Republican proposals and Democrats’ refusal to engage them, offering a memorable line: “They won’t even build bridges… to build bridges!”

Scott’s purpose and focus was clear. He wants an end to fracturing on racial, ethnic, and ideological lines. It’s a powerful argument — if people bother to truly listen.