United States Senator
Stepping toward the Members-only underground train to take him to the Senate floor for a vote, Senator Tim Scott was stopped by a skeptical member of the Capitol Police. The officer gave the Senator’s dapper business suit decorated with the small, round Senate pin a once over and stated accusingly, “The pin, I recognize. You, I don’t.” This Capitol Hill police officer was willing to believe that an African-American man was an imposter before taking him seriously as a Senator.
A humiliating encounter but not an isolated one for Tim; in the course of that first year as a United States Senator he had already been stopped seven times by a law enforcement officer. While two of those stops were the result of his having violated the speed limit, the other stops were seemingly due to the perceived offense of walking or driving “while black.”
Tim told this story during the summer of 2016 when several questionable police stops and subsequent fatalities at the hands of police officers were being protested throughout the country. Standing on the Senate floor, he spoke of the anger, frustration, sadness and humiliation—the damage to his soul--he had experienced from the numerous warranted police stops to which he had been subjected.
As the first African-American Senator from the South since the reconstruction era, Tim is uniquely poised to talk about his personal reactions to the recordings of unarmed or unthreatening black men unjustly subjected to police violence. Tim shuddered when he heard Eric Garner’s words; “I can’t breathe” while being held in a choke hold; he wept when he saw a video of Walter Scott being shot in the back when running away from a police officer; he broke at the small voice of a four year old girl telling her mother “It’s okay . . . I’m right here with you” after her mother’s boyfriend was shot during a routine traffic stop.
After the unexpected election of Donald Trump, whom Tim Scott supported during the campaign and who named Tim the vice-chair of the president’s transition team, Tim took to the Senate floor again to read some of the deeply insulting tweets and other communications he had received as a result of supporting Donald Trump. Many used the “N” word, one saying he was a “House N . . .”; one person called him an “Uncle Tom S…;” (with the S for a curse word, not for Scott); another “a white man in a black body;” another said he was a “disgrace to his race.” Tim’s response was that while serving in the Senate, and after he leaves the Senate one day, he will still be black: “black every day, black every way.”
Tim Scott knows what it is like to be “targeted for being yourself.” When he first ran for public office in 1997, seeking a seat on the Charleston Country Council, Tim was attacked from all sides of the color line and political fence who responded viscerally to a conservative black man. From the left he was referred to as “Uncle Tom,” or a “ventriloquist dummy;” at the same time, he found his campaign road signs and yard signs defaced with racial slurs, presumably from white supremacists from the right.
In his bid for a House seat from South Carolina, campaign volunteers were brought to tears answering the high volume of insulting phone calls, so that at one point Tim simply had the phones shut down. When you are blazing a trail, when you are “on the tip of the arrow,” it is his experience that you are going to draw blood and more often than not it is your own.
And it is painful. Tim does not try to ignore the pain or pretend he does not feel it; “The one thing I’ve asked the Lord for is the ability to feel pain,” he admits. This ability to feel pain, he has learned, is the start of real transformation.
While the conventional wisdom about politics is that it requires thick skin, Tim disagrees. Perhaps if a person’s goal in politics is to stay in the game, thick skin is useful, but “if your goal is to make progress . . . and you define progress as helping more people, I think the ability to feel is a prerequisite of that progress.” Losing the ability to feel real pain also might mean losing sight of the actual goal of responding to people’s pain.
Listening to people, including constituents who disagree vehemently with him is an act Tim sees as essential in what might be understood as a spiritual practice of feeling pain. So when Tim is invited into politically hostile environments or telephoned by citizens who hold very different views from him, he always accepts the invitation; he always takes the call; “All that stuff keeps me aware and sensitive.”
Tim was not always so aware; in fact, he looks back at a younger self and thinks he was a bit clueless. Whether it was burning his hand on a stove or riding his bike Evil Kneivel style over trashcans or eating himself into oblivion, he acted with little attention to consequences. His rambunctious and mischievous approach did not extend to violating those Baptist prohibitions against smoking, drinking or other wild behavior, but in other areas he seemed inclined to do exactly what he was told not to do.
His maternal grandmother Loweda was the spiritual matriarch of the family. When Tim was seven years old and his parents divorced, his mother, brother and Tim moved into the two-bedroom, 900 square foot home where Loweda and her husband Artis lived. Loweda made sure the family regularly sat in the second row at Morris Street Baptist Church where at eleven years old Tim committed his life to God, with little clue of what that meant.
When a hairline neck fracture Tim suffered while playing football the next year seemed to miraculously disappear after Loweda dreamt that it had healed, Tim was focused on how happy he was to get out of the hospital and play football again rather than on any lessons of faith his grandmother was offering.
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