‘God Made Me Black on Purpose’
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At the end of Forest Avenue, a narrow artery slicing through blocks of muddy lots and decaying one-story homes, Tim Scott kicks at the gravel and waits. He had shared a table Saturday night with the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, at the annual dinner of Washington’s Alfalfa Club, the ultra-exclusive gathering of the political and financial elite that began as a celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Now, it’s Monday morning and the junior senator from South Carolina is back home, in one of this challenged city’s most challenging neighborhoods, to get a haircut. The dramatic change of scenery doesn’t faze Scott, a man who straddles disparate universes with unusual ease. But he is not without powers of observation. As conspicuous as he was at the Alfalfa dinner—one of the few black faces in the Capital Hilton ballroom—I am all the more so here. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “you’re about to be like the third white dude ever inside this place.”
The Quick Service Barber Shop is the aesthetic pinnacle of Forest Avenue; its cream-colored exterior is dressed in red and blue paint announcing the proprietors and proclaiming Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s easier said than done around these parts. There was a shooting inside the shop a few months back, Scott tells me; his friends urged him to find a new barber. The senator wouldn’t hear of it. Scott got his very first haircut here a half-century ago, courtesy of Charles Swint. His son, Charles Swint Jr.—a minister who took over the family business—is the only person Scott trusts with a pair of clippers. When his white Cadillac Escalade finally pulls up, Swint Jr., a small, salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a dark three-piece suit, jumps out and grins at Scott: “Praise the Lord!”
The old friends hug and we head inside. A pillar of the area’s African-American community, the shop features aging walls covered in photos, news clippings and other paraphernalia. Two individuals in particular are lionized: Barack Obama, the country’s first black president; and Scott, the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction—and the only African-American ever to serve in both chambers of Congress. Both are children of single mothers, but politically, the pair have little in common: Obama, a liberal Democrat raised primarily by well-off whites in Hawaii before adopting Chicago’s impoverished South Side as his political base; Scott, a conservative Republican who grew up poor in North Charleston, and whose initial ticket to D.C. was punched by affluent voters in the state’s three-quarters-white 1st Congressional District. Still, they are members of a small fraternity—two of just 10 African-Americans ever to serve in the Senate—and both are an immeasurable source of pride for the barber shop and its customers.
“He took this haircut,” Swint Jr. says, running his fingers over Scott’s newly sheened, oval-shaped head, “all the way from Quick Service Barber Shop to the White House.”
Indeed, the senator has spent plenty of time lately at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. When the unified Republican government made tax reform its top priority—after failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—he emerged as a star player, one of four senators who crafted the legislation and worked alongside the administration to win over holdouts. Scott’s repeat visits to the White House were punctuated by a victory lap on the South Lawn after Congress passed the GOP tax plan. It should have been a crowning moment in his career—not only for the role he played in writing and passing the law, but because he had triumphed in securing bipartisan language in the final product that accomplished a longtime goal: creating “Opportunity Zones” across America, with tax incentives offered for investing in poor communities. (He makes a point of noting that both urban and rural areas will benefit.) When Scott took his place at the ceremony on the afternoon of December 20—flanking President Donald Trump, right next to Speaker Paul Ryan—the extent of his influence was on full display.
But that’s not what everyone saw. Just minutes before Trump invited Scott to speak at the lectern, Andy Ostroy, a HuffPost blogger, tweeted: “What a shocker … there’s ONE black person there and sure enough they have him standing right next to the mic like a manipulated prop. Way to go @SenatorTimScott.” When the event ended, Scott opened Twitter and spotted the comment. He responded: “Uh probably because I helped write the bill for the past year, have multiple provisions included, got multiple Senators on board over the last week and have worked on tax reform my entire time in Congress. But if you’d rather just see my skin color, pls feel free.”
The exchange crystallized the central dilemma of Scott’s political existence. Concerned about narrowing his brand, the senator long has tried to downplay his ethnic exceptionalism and avoid the role of race-relations ambassador for the GOP. And yet Scott, now more than ever, cannot seem to escape being perceived as such. He is not just a generic black Republican in a generic period of history; he is the most powerful and prominent black elected official in America, serving at a time of heightened racial tension and widespread accusations of xenophobia against his own party and the president who leads it. This ensures that Scott wears a target on his back regardless of the issue or crisis at hand. When race is involved, the stakes are even higher, forcing upon him decisions of personal and political identity: Scott can choose to stay silent and be accused of selling out his heritage, or speak out and be defined by his blackness.
“God made me black on purpose. For a specific reason. It has helped me to help others who have been locked out of opportunity in many ways,” Scott tells me over lunch at a Subway sandwich shop near his home, after the barber visit and a game of pickup basketball. “I am not pretending that this characteristic, this Earth suit that I’m in”—he pinches the skin of his arm—“isn’t being evaluated. It requires a response, or a reaction, to the situations at my level of government. I am fully aware of that. I just don’t want to play a game with it.”
“People are fixated on my color,” Scott says. “I’m just not.”
Yet in the age of Trump, he is coming to terms with an uncomfortable truth: The fixation on his color is a feature, not a bug. No matter his achievements or aspirations, Tim Scott is sentenced to exist in America’s collective political subconscious as a black man first and everything else second.
Unlike most members of Congress, who rise early, Scott is a creature of the night. A teetotaling bachelor at age 52, he follows an unorthodox schedule: sleeping in as late as possible, then staying up into the wee hours of the morning. He reads, prays, works out, watches movies. But his favorite post-midnight pastime is writing. Scott, a successful businessman and politician in Charleston before coming to Congress in the Tea Party insurgency of 2010, has spent his adult years putting life on pen and pad: his plans for the coming days and weeks; goals for the years ahead; visions of how problems big and small will be resolved and what the future will look like.
Scott’s friends universally describe him as cerebral and calculating, someone who speaks very little until he is convinced there is something specific to say. This is particularly true concerning matters of race. Scott mostly kept his head down after first arriving in the Senate in 2013, but has used his megaphone with greater frequency the past two years. One such instance was in July 2016, when he delivered a historic speech from the Senate floor describing being profiled by law enforcement. Another came in February 2017, when Scott took to the floor again, this time to read racially charged tweets sent by liberals attacking him for supporting Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general. The most recent example was when, after Trump equivocated in his response to the August 2017 white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, Scott said the president’s “moral authority is compromised.”
That earned Scott a different sort of invitation to the White House. Reached on his cellphone by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the senator agreed to sit down with the president and explain his displeasure. What ensued was a lengthy, Scott-led seminar on systemic discrimination. He recalls doing most of the talking; the White House released a photo of Trump listening intently to a senator identified as “Tom Scott.” When I ask whether he got through to Trump, Scott does not hesitate. “Yes. I have no question that I got through to him,” he says. “Now the question is, [does] getting through lead to immediate transformation or change? Or maybe instantly the light comes on, but that doesn’t mean it stays on. Because he’s, what, 71 years old? I don’t think anybody at that age changes in a single conversation, save for one with the good Lord.”
When I list Trump’s history of race-based controversies—housing discrimination suits, the Central Park Five, lying about Obama’s birthplace, Mexican “rapists,” the Muslim ban—Scott bobs his head up and down: “I am not unaware of the president’s past,” he tells me. A long pause. “Do you think he’s a racist?” I ask. Scott shakes his head. “I don’t. I don’t,” he replies. “Is he racially insensitive? Yes. But is he a racist? No.”
Every Republican lawmaker is on a tightrope these days, forced to weigh his or her moral and philosophical objections to Trump’s presidency against fears of losing influence in Washington and support back home. In Scott’s case, he is suspended above a pit of vipers. Any rebuke of the president exposes him to more lunacy from the right; the senator is a frequent target of menacing calls and messages, and last fall a Georgia man was arrested for threatening to kill him. (“He said he wanted to be the next Dylann Roof,” Scott tells me, referring to the white supremacist who murdered eight parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.) Meanwhile, biting his tongue when it comes to Trump’s behavior has opened Scott to unyielding vitriol from the left, with accusations of being an “Uncle Tom” or worse. He invariably handles such attacks with elegance and humor: When one Twitter user called Scott a “house n—-” last year, after his vote to confirm Sessions, he tweeted back a one-word reply: “Senate.”
“It weighs on him,” says Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina congressman and Scott’s closest friend in Washington. “That man goes through things”—his voice cracks—“the rest of us will never, ever have to go through. And he does it with grace. And he does it with class. And he does it with dignity.” Gowdy apologizes for getting emotional, then continues: “Yes, Tim is an African-American who happens to be a Republican. But he’s a lot deeper than a spokesperson on racial issues. … People want to drag him in when there’s a Charlottesville. And they want to drag him in when the president is alleged to say something about African countries or Haiti. And there’s an expectation that he’s going to have to respond. And he does. But whatever response he gives, it’s never enough for the left. And when he does speak from the heart … he’s accused of not supporting the president. So he’s in a no-win situation.”
There is, however, a silver lining to Scott’s predicament. A deeply religious man who sees the Almighty’s hands on the country, Scott does not believe that God “chose” Trump. But he does believe the “American family” was long overdue for “painful, ugly, embarrassing” conversations about race and other combustible subjects that have simmered for generations. We are now having them, he says, thanks to Trump and the unsettled national climate he exploited to win the presidency. “I know what fear looks like. I think fear typically comes with anger and hostility. You’re afraid that you’re losing something, that you won’t have something that you used to have,” Scott tells me. “I think people who march with torches—who want to resurrect a thankfully dead part of who we were—these are people who are afraid. Afraid of the changes happening in the country. Afraid of the other man who doesn’t look like them.” He adds: “And it’s permanent. That’s why the fear. Something is permanently changing.”
Surveying this societal upheaval, Scott sees “a wave of negative hostility, and a wave of opportunity, all hidden in the same room.” He finds himself hopeful of two things: first, that by virtue of his diverse experiences he is uniquely positioned to help broker a peace between the warring tribes; and second, that if successful, not only will today’s tumult lead to “a healthier country” in the long run, but that those who follow in Scott’s footsteps might be liberated from the racial paradigms he has struggled to transcend.
“All of it hurts. All of it is painful. I’m not impervious to pain, nor do I seek to be. I’ve asked the good Lord to be able to feel that pain,” he says. “I want to remember what it feels like to be disrespected, to be disgusted with the treatment I’ve received, so that I can make sure other people don’t go through that.”
There are two Tim Scotts. One is gregarious, outgoing, magnetic, confident—the guy with the lightning-fast quips and crazy, colorful socks. But there is an alter ego: People close to the senator describe him as withdrawn and introverted and deeply private, someone more comfortable speaking to 500 people than five. When I ask about this, Scott, a physically imposing man with soft facial features and a barrel-sized chest, leans back in his chair and nods. “I think I’m still a shy kid in many ways,” he says.
Scott was 7 years old and living on a Michigan Air Force base when his parents separated. He and his older brother were taken by their mother back to their native South Carolina. Moving in with her parents, Frances Scott and her boys shared a bedroom, and a bed, in the cramped, shack-style home off a dirt road in North Charleston. Scott is certain that he saw his father at least once in the two decades that followed but can’t recall when or under what circumstance. It wasn’t until his late 20s or early 30s, he tells me, that he opened himself to reconciling with Ben Scott Sr. They are “doing well now” and talk once a month, the senator says, but the feelings of abandonment he felt shaped him in unmistakable ways. “Getting over that takes, for me, so far, 45 years,” Scott says, his voice barely above a whisper. “It just takes time.”
Left to raise Tim and Ben Jr. on her own, Frances pulled double shifts as a nursing assistant at a Charleston hospital: 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, then 3:30 until 11 at night. Scott was deeply influenced by his grandfather, Artis Ware, who had left a segregated school in the 3rd grade to pick cotton in the fields of Charleston for 50 cents a day. Scott remembers his role model scouring the newspaper each morning, impressing upon his grandsons the importance of reading; it wasn’t until years later that Scott realized his grandfather was illiterate.
Scott did not fall into the drug trade like two neighborhood friends who were shot and killed. But he rebelled in other ways. The future senator flunked his freshman year of high school, failing English, world geography, civics and Spanish. His options: repeat the grade or take summer school to pass the courses. Scott’s mother told him he was going to summer school—and finding work to pay the $265 fee himself. Failing the 9th grade was the first of several inflection points in Scott’s young life. “She was working all the hours in the world to keep us off of welfare,” Scott recalls, “and I just knew I was blowing it.”
His sophomore year showed improvement, but it was the summer after that changed everything. On break from his movie theater job, Scott walked into the nearby Chick-fil-A and requested his usual: waffle fries and water. The store’s owner, John Moniz, asked about the order; Scott said it was all he could afford. The exchange sparked a mentoring relationship that transformed Scott’s outlook on life. Having grown to a muscular 200 pounds, Scott, the varsity football team’s star running back, had been plotting a path to the NFL so he could provide for his mother. “He said you can become a business owner, and you can do the exact same things you want to do for your mother through football,” the senator recalls Moniz saying. “He was selling hope and opportunity—all things are possible no matter where you’re from.”
Scott averaged 6½ yards per carry his junior year, and big schools came calling to recruit him. But it wasn’t meant to be. Weeks before his senior year began, after driving his mother to work early one morning, Scott fell asleep at the wheel of her Toyota hatchback, flipping the car, going through the windshield, and mangling his back and ankle. (The ankle still nags at him; Scott mostly hovers around the three-point arc during the hoops game.) He missed most of the season—a source of sadness to this day—and received offers from only a few smaller schools. Scott accepted an athletic scholarship from Presbyterian University in Clinton, South Carolina, where he experienced “culture shock” as one of roughly three dozen black students on a campus of 1,200. But Scott, who credits team sports and the military with doing more for race relations than any other institutions in America, adjusted rather quickly. “The thing I remember most about Tim was his smile. I would pop him good on the practice field, and he would come up grinning every time,” says John Rickenbacker, the team’s strong safety. “It would drive you crazy.” Football wasn’t the focus for long: That fall of his freshman year, Scott attended a Bible study on campus and prayed to accept Jesus. Suddenly, athletics were an afterthought. “Football was my god,” he explains, “and you can’t have two of them.” Scott quit the team after one season and visited Columbia Seminary, wanting to enter the clergy. But it wasn’t the right fit. Instead, he transferred to Baptist College (now Charleston Southern) and moved back home.
Scott had caught the political bug in high school; somehow, the freshman flunky became student body vice president his junior year, went to Boys State that summer, and was elected student body president as a senior. Thanks to Moniz’s mentoring, Scott had also developed a keen interest in business, and spent time studying finance and government in college. Tragedy struck during Scott’s sophomore year: Moniz died of a pulmonary embolism at age 38. “It was pretty hard on Tim,” recalls Brian Moniz, John’s son, who was 14 at the time. “Dad had a mission statement that he wanted to have a positive influence on a million people. When he passed, Tim sat down and wrote his own mission statement. He wanted to influence a billion people.”
Scott went into insurance sales after college, first with New York Life, then a smaller private company and finally with his own highly successful Allstate agency. All the while he had scanned for political opportunities, and in 1994, one came knocking: a vacancy on the Charleston County Council. Scott knew immediately he would run; what he didn’t know was for which party. He was volunteering that year on the congressional campaign of a young man named Mark Sanford, attracted to his platform of fiscal discipline. But Scott wasn’t sure he himself was a Republican. He visited the local Democratic Party headquarters to tell them he was interested in running for the open seat. “They told me to get in line,” Scott laughs. He went straight to the GOP headquarters. “They said, ‘You probably won’t win, but heck we’d love to see you run.’” And just like that, Scott was a Republican. “Access to opportunity is my No. 1 issue,” he says by way of explanation. “It doesn’t really matter what your title is; your mission is the same.”
The newcomer had a natural feel for politics. He wound up serving on the council for 13 years, including multiple stints as chairman, earning a reputation for his pro-business sensibilities and consensus-building style. “It was interesting that he was an African-American Republican, but you know, he didn’t approach his job on the county council in a partisan manner,” says former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a legendary Democrat who held office for 40 years. “He was very well-liked on the council and enormously popular in the community. He was easy to work with and easy to like. And it seemed we were usually on the same side of issues.”
Scott’s promising career nearly ended before it began. While serving his first term on the council, he ran and lost a race for state Senate; a boilerplate Republican on most issues, he took the unpopular stance of removing the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol. It was also during that campaign he began attending Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, a wealthy, overwhelmingly white suburb of Charleston. There he met Pastor Greg Surratt, who became Scott’s close friend and spiritual adviser. Scott was reelected to the council, but confided to Surratt that he was losing interest in politics—and wanted to go to seminary. Surratt allowed him to speak at the church soon afterward. Scott says he was “sweating up there, trying to do too much” to impress the congregation. “He’ll tell you today that he applied and didn’t get the job,” Surratt laughs. “But I told him, ‘I believe that you have a calling to politics, and that’s where you can serve the best with your life.’ As a pastor, I think he would have been very good. But as a politician, he is excellent.”
Walking away from the ministry for a second time, Scott renewed his focus on politics, building a sprawling base of support across the county over the ensuing decade. When he launched a second campaign for the Legislature, in 2008, he easily won a House seat in the affluent exurbs of Charleston. Even before his swearing-in, Scott began preparing a bid for lieutenant governor in 2010. He quickly became the favorite, raising nearly $300,000 for the race. But it wasn’t a natural fit. Scott kept hammering national issues—the debt and deficit, Obamacare, military readiness—that weren’t relevant to the office he sought. Friends urged Scott to run for Congress, but he refused; a GOP incumbent, Henry Brown, represented the 1st District.
When Brown abruptly retired in January 2010, Scott’s advisers told him to pounce. It was a no-brainer. But not to him. Scott admits to being a homebody; he doesn’t like boarding weekly flights to D.C. Moreover, he recalls, “There were these behemoths in the race.” The loaded field included Carroll Campbell III, son of the state’s iconic former governor, and Paul Thurmond, son of the famous senator and segregationist Dixiecrat. Scott, a self-made insurance salesman from North Charleston, was fretful. He prayed and prayed, he says, but received no guidance. Yet for reasons he today cannot articulate—other than pressure from friends—Scott ultimately joined the race.
It took a toll on his personal life. “As a poor kid growing up, the most important thing for me to do was take care of my mom. And until I had that accomplished, starting a new family was just not an option for me,” he explains. Finally, in his early 40s, Scott began looking to settle down. But just as things got serious with a girlfriend, the 1st District seat opened—and it ultimately became clear that marriage and Congress would not mix. Scott, who is known to dote on the children of his colleagues and staffers—and tells me he always wanted six of his own—says he struggles with regrets at having prioritized politics over love. “But I think in the right time, I will meet Mrs. Right, and she’ll want to have a couple kids,” he smiles. “Or she ain’t Mrs. Right. Right?”
Other than the failed romance, everything worked out: Scott placed first in the nine-way primary but failed to hit 50 percent and wound up in a runoff with Thurmond. The headlines wrote themselves: Black Republican vs. Strom Thurmond’s Son. But the candidates, former colleagues on the council, refused to engage in such narratives, even as the famously dirty and race-baiting South Carolina political underbelly demanded them. “The thing about Tim I’ve always appreciated is it’s never him trying to point out how unique he is as an African-American Republican. He didn’t want to discuss that,” Thurmond tells me. “He didn’t want to monopolize or cash in on that.”
He hardly needed to. Scott, reading the populist mood in 2010, built his candidacy around two Tea Party mandates—eliminating earmarks and enforcing term limits—and bludgeoned Thurmond for disagreeing. He received national endorsements from the Club for Growth and Sarah Palin, as well as conspicuous financial backing from two members of the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy. Scott demolished Thurmond in the runoff and packed his bags for Washington.
If Scott is sensitive to allegations of being a political “prop,” it’s because upon arriving on Capitol Hill he was sometimes treated like one. The freshman congressman was not naive; he recognized the yawning racial disparity in the GOP, and was warned to be wary of the support he’d received from Cantor and McCarthy. For the same reason he declined to join the Congressional Black Caucus—not wanting to be viewed through the prism of race—Scott planned to keep a low profile in the GOP. “Tim was very careful. He didn’t want to be used by the leadership,” recalls Nick Muzin, Scott’s then-chief of staff. “He wanted to speak up on things he cared about. He didn’t want to be used as a spokesman for the party.”
That proved difficult. “Tim was far and away the best-known member of that historically large class,” says Gowdy, who arrived with Scott in January 2011, knowing him only as the guy who dropped out of the lieutenant governor’s race. “Tim was like Elvis Presley. Leadership wanted him all the time to be the party’s face on television. It was incredible pressure on someone brand new to Congress.” One night as freshmen, Gowdy remembers, he met Scott—still more of a colleague than a friend—for dinner. He looked “frazzled” and “overwhelmed.” Gowdy could see the strain. “You have earned every bit of capital you have, politically,” Gowdy told him. “Do not let anyone else spend that capital.” They were inseparable after that; the two men dine together every night Congress is in session, and they recently co-authored a book, Unified, that publishes in April.
It wasn’t just one party seizing on Scott’s sudden prominence. “I can’t tell you how the most racially insensitive people I have encountered are white liberals who are stunned and dismayed that there can be someone who looks like me who doesn’t fit their mold,” he says. “The Democrats want to use my color against the Republican Party. And the Republicans want to”—he breaks into a broad smile, cocking his head sideways—“emphasize my complexion in ways that say that we are not a party that is bigoted.”
As Scott pulled back, sick of the unwanted attention, Muzin recalls a GOP lobbyist calling him to express concern. Allen West—the other black Republican congressman in Scott’s class, a loose cannon with a penchant for provocative commentary—was becoming a fixture on Fox News. “He said, ‘You guys are falling behind. Allen West is the black Republican,’” Muzin chuckles. “And I remember thinking, ‘Tim’s trajectory is much longer than Allen’s.’” Sure enough, West lost his reelection bid in November 2012. A month later, before Scott had even completed his first term in the House, he was appointed by Governor Nikki Haley to replace Senator Jim DeMint, who had resigned to become president of The Heritage Foundation.
Much ink was spilled on the symbolism: South Carolina’s Indian-American governor bulldozing a major racial barrier on behalf of Scott, making him the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. What received less attention was the reality that Scott, having held public office for more than 15 years and developed deep relationships and policy expertise, was considered on merit to be the obvious choice. “It is very important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat,” Haley said when announcing his appointment. The five years since have done nothing to change that perception. “He’s the perfect package,” says Sanford, who was Haley’s predecessor, and who ultimately won back the seat in his old congressional district that Scott vacated. “He’s a breath of fresh air in a place that at times can be fairly dark. He’s a person who in profound ways walks his faith. He’s likable. He’s affable. You get some people who are policy wonks but they frighten you or bore you; he does neither. He presents well on camera. There’s incredible relatability to him. He’s just as close to a god, politically, as you can get back home.”
Of course, Scott heard the whispers—and in some quarters, the grumbling—about his appointment being an affirmative action hire. It made him all the more determined not to give them ammunition. In the absence of words, Scott tried to lead with actions, assembling one of the most diverse offices on Capitol Hill, led by his black, single-mother chief of staff. He also poured time and resources into mentoring programs in distressed communities back home. But his silence on major cultural events grew more and more deafening. “Scott has said little on the racial controversies and civil rights issues of the last four years, from the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to the death of Michael Brown and the explosion of anger and rage in Ferguson,” Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate in November 2014. Soon enough, circumstances made the senator’s reticence unsustainable.
In April 2015, Walter Scott—no relation—was fatally shot in the back by a policeman in North Charleston; the senator was shaken by the hometown incident and called for the officer’s prosecution. (In 2017, Scott introduced the Walter Scott Notification Act, which would create a database of police shootings.) Ten weeks after Walter Scott’s murder, Roof opened fire at Emanuel AME Church; the church’s pastor and the senator’s friend, Clementa Pinckney, was among those gunned down. Scott, who still keeps his final text message exchange with Pinckney, delivered an emotional address on the Senate floor. (“God cares for His people,” Scott said, quoting the son of one of the victims he had spoken with. “God still lives.”) The next summer, in July 2016, amid another rash of police shootings, Scott returned to the Senate floor to describe how he himself had been victimized by racial profiling—being pulled over seven times in a single year as an elected official, and being forced to show identification to Capitol Police despite wearing his members-only Senate pin. “It’s easy to sit back and deny these things are happening, until they’re happening to you,” says Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a close friend, who knew about the profiling incidents but never expected them to be shared from the Senate floor. “At the core of his argument, we have a significant percentage of people in this country who feel they’re treated differently because of their background or their color. And we need to talk about it. No one else could have done that. No one else could have given that speech.”
Until Trump arrived on the scene, Scott was content to pick and choose his spots, speaking on race authoritatively enough to command attention but infrequently enough to avoid being typecast. If threading that needle was difficult before, it now appears impossible. The question is no longer whether Scott is the GOP’s dominant voice on race relations, but whether he can preserve credibility in both camps: engaging minority communities while simultaneously partnering with an administration they distrust, all in the pursuit of maintaining an influence over policies he believes will positively affect them. It might sound duplicitous, but Charlottesville offers a potential blueprint. If Trump was going to get a good photo-op out of their White House meeting, Scott, after skewering the president, was going to get something, too. When Trump asked what he could do to help the situation, the senator pitched his “Opportunity Zones” idea, and the president instantly offered his support. That language, Scott tells me, probably would not have become law without the administration’s backing.
Even so, these dynamics are fragile and fluid. Many Republicans have spent the past year accommodating Trump at all costs to protect themselves back home. Scott—who just won a six-year term in 2016, and has struggled to mask his irritation with the White House—won’t be one of them. “It’s a tough position to be in,” Sanford tells me. “Because at some point, given the pattern, the president’s going to say something so outlandish that it’s going to force Tim to say, ‘No more. I’m done.’”
The senator is running behind. It’s a Wednesday morning in late January, and he is scheduled to join a colleague in addressing the United States Conference of Mayors. When Scott enters the room, searching for his seat at the roundtable, he stops to slap hands with Cory Booker. “You’re looking at the Big Bald Black Man Caucus of the United States Senate,” his colleague from New Jersey announces. “We’re looking for a third!” Scott bellows out, the room breaking up in laughter.
There is truth in jest: Despite ideological differences, Scott and Booker have become good friends in no small part due to shared expectations, if not shared experiences. (“Cory graduated cum laude,” Scott tells the crowd of his Ivy-educated colleague. “I graduated thank you law-dy!”) Along with Democrat Kamala Harris of California, they are the only three African-Americans in the Senate, and feel the obligation of growing that number. The burden is especially heavy for Scott, given his party’s dearth of nonwhite voters and the pressure on him to engage the black community without alienating the GOP’s white base. “I get fewer chances to mess up than other people,” he tells me. “Therefore, realizing that my reaction is something that will either create more opportunities for people like me or reduce opportunities for people like me, I have to be very aware of how [it] will be taken by a larger audience.”
This is why, as much as Scott loathes being seen as the token black Republican, his only hope is serving well enough, long enough, to see the day reinforcements arrive and stereotypes fade. “If you’re on the cutting edge of these things, you’re going to be a prop. Now the question is, whether or not you conduct yourself in such a way that the guy or gal coming behind you won’t be a prop,” says Jim Clyburn, the longtime Democratic congressman and the only other African-American in South Carolina’s delegation. Clyburn tells me, in a bit of serendipity, that just before our talk he was on the phone with Utah’s Mia Love—a black Republican elected in 2014—planning an event with her in Salt Lake City. “I think that she is much more comfortable being a Republican in the Congress because Tim handled being a prop in a way that makes it easier for her,” Clyburn says. “And she will make it easier for other people.”
Scott likes to use the phrase “from cotton to Congress,” describing how his grandfather, a product of the Jim Crow South, lived long enough to see his grandson elected to federal office. “I watched him eulogize his grandfather, and to see the tears running down his face—there was a lot of sacrifice, tribulation, suffering that happened in his family,” says Al Jenkins, a longtime friend who runs Scott’s community outreach and mentoring programs in the Charleston region. “He’s there on the shoulders of all of those generations of Scotts that sacrificed today so that maybe somebody will be able to break through tomorrow. And he carries that with him every day. He is constantly reminded, ‘You are the one. You are the breakthrough.’”
But the truth is, for all of his trailblazing, Tim Scott is also a living testament to a lack of progress. Breaking through isn’t enough—not for him. He sees minorities lagging on the socioeconomic spectrum. He sees that nativism and prejudice are alive and well. He sees entire communities undereducated and overincarcerated. He sees decades of momentum on race relations stalled. He sees people continuing to judge him by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. Sometimes he struggles to hold back; all he wants to do is unleash a lifetime of exasperation and say what he really thinks—about Trump, racism, law enforcement and the hypocrisy in both parties. The only thing holding him back is the feeling that now it’s his turn to sacrifice.
“I’ve been frustrated. And angry. Man,” Scott says, looking downward, his voice trembling with emotion. He looks up. “It’s too easy to be angry. And too natural. And also, too unproductive for me. But I get it. I get it. I’m not at a point where my grandfather was. He could say nothing. He had to eat his anger. Or the next generation, who harnessed their anger and led to marches. I’m on the inside track. I have a very different responsibility. It cannot be about me.”