Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a Sirius XM radio host and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Wednesday night, President Joe Biden delivered his first address before a joint session of Congress – a speech full of optimism, policy priorities and an expansive vision for the future. I wasn’t surprised that the Republican Party chose to put South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott forward for their “rebuttal” – in this case, 15 minutes of dissembling in the service of an obvious plea to voters who do not look like him.
One of the main requirements for today’s Black Republicans appears to be the tricky logic of downplaying racism while simultaneously playing the race card. Scott was clearly ready to perform that number last night. He quickly went viral for his rebuttal to Biden, saying: “I get called ‘Uncle Tom’ and the N-word – by ‘progressives’”! Minutes later he added, “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”
There are two big problems with that take. First, it’s hard to imagine a country where people are calling you the N-word as not being racist. Second, as much as Scott’s pronouncement of an un-racist America may have appealed to some Republican White voters, it wasn’t an actual rebuttal to Biden’s remarks. Biden never said America was a racist country. Scott created a strawman talking point for his party’s base so he could tell them what they wanted to hear. He was joyfully playing the role of the Black man who makes White Americans more comfortable.
Here are some recent facts about Biden – or other elected leaders – calling America racist.
In January of 2020 the New York Times asked presidential candidates at the time if the United States was a racist country, and not one of them said yes.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg answered, “I don’t think it’s fair to categorize it as a racist country.”
Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren only said, “I think that racism is a serious problem in this country.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg avoided saying the country was racist: “I am convinced that white supremacy is the force most likely to destroy the American dream.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has never explicitly said America was a racist country and was consistently criticized for appearing to focus more on class.
In July of 2020, Biden came under fire for saying Trump was America’s first racist President, which was pretty shocking to historians considering how both Democratic and Republican Presidents upheld the extermination of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, advocated for Jim Crow laws and supported voter disenfranchisement via the Southern Strategy. Also, we must never forget the war on drugs, which directly targets Black and brown people, and the tragedies of mass incarceration.
In Wednesday’s speech, Biden only mentioned racism twice, when he called “to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system” and also said, “we have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues American life in many other ways.”
The truth is that Scott wasn’t there to rebut Biden’s speech. He had one job: to soothe racial guilt at any cost.
He pursued it with precision. The Charleston, South Carolina, native repeatedly called on his Christianity, catnip to White evangelicals (even those who supported an adulterer, a historic liar and a person who never asked for forgiveness at 80%). After telling his audience that “the real story” for our souls and our nation isn’t “original sin” (a loaded term when talking about the US and its history with racism) but “redemption,” Scott even quoted “The Blessing,” a popular song by worship duo Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes (who visited the Trump White House in 2019), which quotes Scripture. It was as if he was putting the imprimatur of holiness on his wholesale dismissal of racism as a systemic problem in America.
Unlike Scott, I do not care about partisan politics. If this were 1870, I’d probably be a Republican. But it’s 2021 and I am a Democrat – but my loyalty isn’t to party. It’s to defending the most vulnerable and attempting to right the wrongs of the past. Scott’s allegiance is apparently the opposite.
Republicans’ racist policies, from a voter suppression bill that has been called Jim Crow 2.0, which civil rights organizations sued over, to bills that grant immunity to drivers who hit protesters, speak louder than their words. For all of Scott’s anxieties about delusions like “woke supremacy,” the targets of Republicans policies are obvious.
In Scott’s remarks, he defended Georgia’s voter suppression bill by saying, “It will be easier to vote early in Georgia than in Democrat-run New York. But the left doesn’t want you to know that.”
What Scott conveniently left out was that Senate Bill 202 limits ballot drop boxes in predominantly Black areas, criminalizes handing out water to voters and, worst of all, gives more power over elections to the Republican legislature.
That said, defending racist polices isn’t a shocker from Scott. He often brags about so-called opportunity zones but fails to mention that they increase gentrification, displacing African Americans out of their neighborhoods and giving a tax bonanza to corporations.
Scott uses his Blackness when it’s convenient, and so does his party. Scott will say he has been stopped by police but craft a weak Justice Act that doesn’t end qualified immunity. Now he has the chance to support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act but reportedly wants to “compromise” on qualified immunity, when there should be no compromise on holding police accountable.
Scott voted with Trump over 90% of the time, including to weaken the Dodd Frank Act, which aims to stop discrimination from mortgage lenders – with Black businesses and owners being disproportionately affected. In 2016, he got just 8% of the Black vote in South Carolina, so it’s clear he doesn’t speak for the overwhelming majority of Black voters, even in his home state.
In the 1870s, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Bruce, both Republicans, became the first two Black US Senators. I have to think they would be appalled to see what has been done with their legacies.
I would never call Scott an Uncle Tom. It’s an insult to the character Uncle Tom, who was the opposite of Scott’s buffoonery in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. While a problematic character in other ways, Tom is a man who sacrifices himself for the good of others.
In his unswerving devotion to party politics, Sen. Scott is an embarrassment on his own – not just for his lies or his cavalier dismissal of systemic racism but for his pursuit of political gain at the expense of the health of our democracy.