‘Living His Mother’s American Dream’

Thirty seconds into his Wednesday speech on the U.S. Senate floor, Tim Scott paused, distraught. Mr. Scott was introducing the Republican police-reform bill, the Justice Act, drafted by a team he led in response to the national outcry after the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. It was also the fifth anniversary of the murder of nine black worshipers in a church in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Scott’s hometown.

Mr. Scott, 54, is the first black Republican senator since 1979—and the first elected from the South since 1875. He reminded his colleagues of the Charleston anniversary, “the day in which a racist walked into Mother Emanuel Church.” Then he fell silent. Paralyzed with emotion, he failed to fight back tears, and stood mute for nearly a minute before resuming his address—now delivered extemporaneously. The prepared speech on the lectern went unread.

Frances Scott—the senator’s 76-year-old mother, who raised him and his elder brother on her own—watched his Senate speech in her Charleston home. “She had tears as well,” Mr. Scott says, “and she was very thankful to the Lord that ‘he is still using me,’ according to her words.” As for Mr. Durbin, Mrs. Scott “just said we should pray for him more,” he says. “My mother is a really devout Christian. I’m not always. I’m trying to be.” That effort is unquestionable: A staffer tells me Mr. Scott promised his pastor to be at church in Charleston for 45 Sundays every year.

In some ways, Mr. Scott is different from most black conservatives. He doesn’t play down or efface his ethnicity and is as forthright about race as any black Democrat. He’s less inclined than liberals are to dwell on past injustice, and he says the “conversation about race” should be “more about what you see through the windshield than in the rearview mirror.” He quotes Van Jones, a liberal black radio host, who once said to him that he’d “trade a dozen Black History Months for one ‘black wealth’ and ‘black futures’ weekend.”

Yet Mr. Scott is outspoken about police excesses. He says his ambition to reform law enforcement is driven by his Christian ideas of fairness and justice. It’s also informed by personal experience. In his Wednesday speech, he said he’d been stopped by police 18 times since 2000, “including seven times in one year” as an elected official.

Mr. Scott strikes a conciliatory tone as he discusses partisan differences over police-reform legislation. “The good news is that the Justice Act has a lot of common ground with the House bill,” he says. “The outcomes we strive for are the same.” Both sides agree on the need for more body cameras and training, ending chokeholds, and collecting more data on the use of force, “even though Democrats do not provide more funding for departments to carry out increased training and reporting.”

The major difference is over “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that limits liability for officers who violate constitutional rights. “The White House has said removing qualified immunity is a red line,” Mr. Scott says, “and I want to see something that can be signed into law.” For Mr. Scott, “the critical piece right now is Senate Democrats must vote to let us start debate on the Senate floor. I don’t pretend the Justice Act has all the answers, but if we don’t debate, if we don’t move toward an amendment process, then we absolutely are not going to be able to get a final product.” The American people are “demanding a solution—not in two months, not in two years, but now.”

I ask about the Black Lives Matter movement, and Mr. Scott marks his distance. “BLM today is synonymous with defunding the police. And that’s a big issue from my perspective. We should not defund the police. I reject that.”

To Mr. Scott, the “question about black lives mattering that has nothing to do with the organization can best be seen in the New York City park where the woman says: I’m going to call the police and tell them my life is being threatened by an African-American man.” He refers to the video, which attained global notoriety last month, of a white woman confronting a bird watcher who’d complained about her unleashed dog in Central Park.

“That, to me, is a snapshot of the devaluing that so many African-Americans have spoken about. We should all have the same intrinsic value in society. And that’s an important position to hold on to.”

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