May 3, 2021

Tim Scott and the politics of race

Tim Scott and the politics of race

Plus, why isn't popular legislation passed?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

We’re covering Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and the comments that are causing so much debate. Plus, we’ve got a new podcast, a correction, and a chance to submit a question to Tangle!

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Gage Skidmore


In Thursday’s “A story that matters,” we covered an Axios story on Biden’s planned tax hikes on wealthy individuals making more than $400,000. There was a sentence that said, “Hypothetically, this means a married couple with each spouse making $399,999 a year would not see a tax increase.” This should have said “would not be exempt from a tax increase,” essentially inverting its meaning. As one Tangle reader astutely noted, “your correction should focus more on how the discussion around that cutoff and the examples given by Axios are really stupid and misleading,” which is actually a helpful piece of commentary.

Focusing on the cutoffs obscures the fact that two people making $400,001 and $399,999 are essentially going to pay the same taxes, since (theoretically) there is just an increase on the dollars that come after $400,000 in the marginal tax rate system. Anyway, it was a convoluted source story that was then poorly explained by us, but the upshot is that it looks like Biden is going to propose hiking tax rates on families bringing in more than $509,300 of taxable income. Precise incomes for individuals and families are still unclear, though. This CNBC story has a good breakdown of what we know to this point.

This is the 38th Tangle correction in its 88-week existence and the first since April 28th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers, and to remind us all that it’s okay to mess up every now and then.

The death penalty.

On Friday, I wrote a subscribers-only edition exploring the history of the death penalty — and shared my thoughts on the arguments out there in support of it. It was one of the more well-received subscribers-only editions I’ve ever written. If you’re interested, you can read the piece by clicking here.

Quick hits.

  1. Two Republicans advanced to a runoff in a Texas Congressional race over the weekend. The race, in Texas’s 6th Congressional District, is to replace Rep. Ron Wright, the Republican congressman who died of COVID-19 earlier this year. His widow, Susan Wright, led all candidates with 19% of the vote. (Texas Tribune)
  2. A slew of retirements among House Democrats could imperil their chances of holding onto the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  3. The Washington Post, New York Times and NBC all retracted reports last week that asserted the FBI had warned Rudy Giuliani he was being used to spread Russian disinformation. Giuliani’s office and home were raided by the FBI last week as part of an investigation into his political lobbying in Ukraine. (The New York Post)
  4. President Biden restricted certain travel from India, where more than 400,000 new cases of coronavirus were just recorded in a single day, a new pandemic record. More than 3,500 people died of the virus in India during a 24-hour period over the weekend. Legal permanent residents, spouses and close family members of US citizens are exempt from the travel ban, which begins Tuesday. (Reuters)
  5. The Environmental Protection Agency took its first significant step under President Biden to curb greenhouse gas emissions, moving to sharply reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are even more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere. (The New York Times, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). The Republican gave the party’s response to President Joe Biden’s national address last week, and since then he’s been the talk of the town. The Wall Street Journal editorial board hailed his “GOP revival message” as presidential. Liberals criticized and attacked him for claiming “America is not a racist country.” And this comes at a time when he is leading negotiations on a pivotal police reform bill, which he says is gaining support from Republicans (Scott’s bill is unlikely to garner Democratic support in the Senate, as it does not end qualified immunity for police officers, but negotiations are ongoing).

Scott’s views on race garnered a lot of attention because he is one of just three Black senators in Congress, and the only Black Republican in the Senate. On Sunday, he appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation to reaffirm some of what he said in his speech and further explain his comments.

“I personally understand the pain of being stopped 18 times driving while Black,” Scott said. “I also have seen the beauty of when officers go door to door with me on Christmas morning delivering presents to kids in the most underserved communities… The question is, ‘Is there a lingering effect after a couple of centuries of racism and discrimination in this nation?’ The answer is absolutely. The question we should be debating and fighting over is how do we resolve those issues going forward? One side says, ‘I'm going to take from some to give to others.’ Fighting bigotry with bigotry is hypocrisy.”

Over the last week, attacks against Scott have trended on Twitter, with many users calling him “Uncle Tim.” The platform then blocked those keywords. There are also an increasing number of political commentators who view Scott as a legitimate contender for president in 2024, which makes this political moment for him all the more charged and important beyond just this issue.

Today, we’ll take a look at some of the responses to his comments and his speech.

What the left is saying.

The left has been critical of Scott’s views, arguing that his comments are part of his political maneuvering.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson said Scott’s declaration that “America is not a racist country” is a “a meaningless claim that would come as a surprise to the ghosts of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among so many others.”

“But the point of Scott’s words wasn’t to engage with history. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, was offering deceptive absolution intended to provide affirmation and comfort to those who prefer to sugarcoat both the nation’s past and its present,” Robinson wrote. “The South Carolina senator offers blanket permission to ignore Vice President Harris’s reality-based rejoinder: ‘It does not help to heal our country — to unify us as a people — to ignore the realities’ of historic and present-day racism… Scott’s rhetorical trick is to define racism so narrowly that many people — or nations — can deny the word applies to them… he offers soothing words to GOP voters who want to believe that racial discrimination is a thing of the distant past and that systemic racism does not even exist. When he says ‘America is not a racist country’ he’s telling his audience — the Republican base — what it wants to hear. Not what it needs to hear.”

In The Root, Michael Harriot conducted an “investigation” into Scott’s claim. Putting aside the “inarguable” racist history of America, Harriot laid out dozens of data points on present-day disparities that exist in economics, politics, criminal justice, education and social issues between Black and White Americans.

“Tim Scott would tell you that these are ‘unequal outcomes,’” Harriot wrote. “He would say that racism is something else, then define it so narrowly that evidence of racism requires a burning cross and DNA markers that spell out the n-word. But I invite you to scroll up and look at the definition of racism. Or, better yet, pull out your own dictionary. How does this not describe ‘the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another?’

“This is the textbook definition of a ‘political or social system…designed to execute’ the principles of racism,” Harriot added. “The only way anyone could deny these disparities were due to racism is if they believed that all the non-white people in history were resistant to hard work, were dumber, were more violent, or more succinctly, that ‘race is the fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities.’”

Christine Emba wrote that Scott’s response was “bedeviled” by confusion and came off as disingenuously unresponsive to Biden’s speech, which did not focus on racism.

“What was so strange about this speech was that Scott didn’t even seem to believe many of the words he said — producing evidence against his claims each time he made one,” she wrote. “‘It’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present,’ he said, which is why I’ll cite my cotton-picking grandfather as a reason we can no longer state that racism exists. ‘I’m an African American who has voted in the South all my life. I take voting rights personally,’ which leads me to grimace through the absurd claim that Republicans support making it easier to vote. ‘Original sin is never the end of the story. Not in our souls, and not for our nation. The real story is always redemption,’ which is why I will argue that we should stop trying to atone for racism, our original sin.”

What the right is saying.

The right has cheered on Scott’s personal story and message, and defended him against attacks from progressives.

In The National Review, Kevin Williamson wrote about Twitter blocking the label “Uncle Tim” and “other racial slurs directed at Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.”

“Twitter would have been doing a great public service if it had left that vile stuff right there in the sunlight where it could be clearly seen and understood,” he wrote. “Like the graffiti painted on Lincoln Ragsdale’s home, it isn’t an indictment of the man targeted — it is a confession made publicly by his enemies. This is who they are...

“The Democrats maintain a party of organized hatreds — they do not have a philosophy; they have an enemies’ list — and they harbor no hatred as intense as the one they nurse for Republicans who are not white men, which is why Senator Scott has been dismissed as a man who ‘only darkened the upper chamber’s complexion,’ as one Washington Post columnist put it,” Williamson added. “Senator Scott is not alone in this: Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a Republican who at the time of her election was the youngest woman to serve in the House, is hated with a special intensity. Nikki Haley, a Republican and the first woman to serve as governor of South Carolina, is subjected to slurs directed at her Punjabi ancestry.

“For the Democrats, there is exactly one mode of public life available to those who are not white, male, heterosexual, etc.: as Democrats. The attitude is distinctly proprietary.”

Kathleen Parker said Scott offered strong and smart criticisms of Biden’s agenda, but you wouldn’t know it if you read his critics on the left.

“The only Black Republican in the Senate, Scott was quickly trending as ‘Uncle Tim’ on Twitter, as a tool of white supremacists and as a blind servant of the far right,” she wrote. “Liberals just cannot handle a Black conservative. This, my friends, is (also) what racism looks like in America today. Let a Black man speak for the GOP; let him defend conservative values that were once considered mainstream; let him challenge the current orthodoxy of systemic racism that pegs Whites as oppressors — and he will feel the wrath of those for whom, as Scott said, belief in racism is essential to political power.

“The trouble among people who seem to see racism everywhere is that Scott neither sees nor dwells in a Black-and-White world,” Parker added. “Life for Scott hasn’t been easy. As he said Wednesday, he has experienced the insults to his dignity that other minorities recognize as part and parcel of life in America. He’s been followed in stores, he said, and pulled over for no reason while driving… In other words, Scott’s is the kind of story Americans have always admired — the overcoming of adversity to become what he could not have imagined as a child.”

In Fox News, Michael Goodwin said that what happened after Scott’s speech was more important than the speech itself.

“The reaction on social media and elsewhere confirmed everything Scott said about the left’s intolerance and bigotry,” Goodwin wrote. “He was instantly insulted as an ‘Uncle Tim’ on Twitter for saying America is not a racist country and, revealing its own bias, Twitter highlighted the offensive term for 12 hours. This is the same left that is quick to label as racist anyone who doesn’t subscribe to its agenda. Yet here it is, actually using racist language against a Black man because he dares to disagree. Joy Behar and Jimmy Kimmel, two White television personalities who previously wore blackface, scaled the heights of hypocrisy by mocking Scott’s heartfelt speech. Kimmel called Scott a token and Behar said he didn’t know what he was talking about.

“For Scott, the outpouring of vitriol was proof that blacks ‘cannot step out of your lane,’ as he put it the next day,” Goodwin added. “The attacks were indeed brazen but, sadly, consistent with the mindset of many Dems. Black supporters of Trump were mocked as traitors to their race, mostly by far-left Whites who presume to know how Blacks should think.”

My take.

I think Tim Scott is good for everyone’s brains. Some of my favorite heterodox thinkers in this country are Black conservatives — Kmele Foster, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes, to name just a few — and each of them speak about their personal experiences and how those inform their politics. All of them share similar stories to Scott’s of the political left trying to shove them “back into their lanes.”

As someone who writes publicly about politics, policing and race, I can’t tell you the number of times an (often White) progressive friend or an (often White) Twitter follower has demanded I “speak to a person of color,” with the obvious presumption that I will get a predictable, specific worldview if I do.

Of course, anyone who has actually spent anytime developing relationships with a diverse group of friends or family will tell you that Black people aren’t a monolith. They have diverse sets of worldviews that are influenced by their class, religion, and life experiences, just like everyone else. The Black Jews I went to synagogue with in Harlem think very differently about politics than my Black friends I grew up with in the suburbs of Philadelphia, who view the world differently than my neighbors in Brooklyn.

All this is to say: “Black” shouldn’t be code for progressive, nor should it be synonymous with it. And that Scott upends that narrative on such a public stage is a good thing, and it has — in fact — exposed the limited thinking of some of his detractors on the left.

It also raises good questions about centralizing race in every issue. The aforementioned Kmele Foster is keen on an anecdote that pushes back on race essentialism, which he repeats often on his podcast. In it, he describes a Black man walking into a jewelry store. In example one, the man is followed around the store by a salesperson, and the assumption is that the salesperson assumes Foster may steal something because he’s Black. In example two, nobody in the store approaches or engages Foster, and the assumption is they think because he is Black he can’t afford anything in the store. In both instances, Foster says, race essentialism leads you to believe you’re the victim of racism — an inescapable conclusion he loathes.

In this case, race essentialism can lead one to believe Tim Scott should have a certain worldview because of the color of his skin. He doesn't have that worldview, though, and there’s no doubt at all that his politics are genuine and earnest. They’re not a political toy — he’s been espousing them consistently and with a great deal of consideration for his entire adult life.

The most controversial assertion in question is also not unique to Scott. Vice President Kamala Harris, asked about Scott’s comments, agreed with him. “No, I don’t think America is a racist country,” she said on Good Morning America. Karen Attiah said Harris has been walking a tightrope on race and stumbled in her response to Scott, but it was the response she gave. Joe Biden then echoed Harris and agreed with Scott, too.

As I said last week — the most interesting part of Scott’s speech to me was what it revealed that he had expected from Biden’s speech, which was clearly a focus on race (and he didn’t get it).

Yet, of all the takes I read about Scott’s comments, Michael Harriot’s flamethrowing, expletive-filled piece was actually the most moving, because he put so many eye-popping, present-day statistics on racial disparities in one place.

Against the backdrop of the argument Harriot laid out, the politics of why Scott would say America wasn’t a racist country — and why Harris and Biden would agree with him — are not difficult to follow. Far too many Americans, with their fragile egos, listen to someone saying “America is a racist country,” and only hear “you are a racist.” Politicians are keen on not offending the people they are trying to win over, and few things aggrieve White Americans more than being accused of racism. Regardless of where you land on the assertion that “America is a racist country,” though, the reality is that racism is still pernicious, insidious, and can express itself in both nuanced and overt ways. Perhaps nothing illustrates that more than the fact that Scott, Harris and every Black political commentator writing about Scott’s speech had a laundry list of their own firsthand experiences with racism to share — something that all of us should meditate on.

And, of course, this entire episode illustrates the problems we face. Racial minorities are still suffering from codified, legal discrimination that existed 50 years ago — many examples of which are still being rooted out today. Then there are the examples of individual racism or prejudiced views many Americans harbor privately. The debate about whether this reality means the country is racist or not obscures the fact that both sides are in agreement we still have plenty of work to do. And the result, sadly, has been a circular firing squad of people espousing preconceived notions about each other based on how they look, all of which one might say amounts to… Well, racism.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why are there so many issues (gun control, weed legalization, etc) that have popular support but are unlikely to be passed by the federal government now or in the near future? Lobbying is clearly a part of this disconnect but are there other factors? Are these just never a primary factor in deciding a vote so they get ignored?

— Tori, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Lobbying is definitely a factor. Money in politics has poisoned a lot of popular initiatives. It’s perhaps the number one factor. There’s also the question of gerrymandering, which has created many political districts where members of Congress are not at risk of losing elections, so they do not feel acute pressure to give their constituents what they want. But I’ll add two other important points to that list:

One is that government moves much more slowly than popular opinion. Something like marijuana legalization is just becoming widely popular, and we’ve actually seen a wave of states legalizing cannabis in the last ten years. Legalization has been pretty reflective of popular opinion, but the federal government is (usually) the last form of government to flip to the popular opinion on an issue, so it makes sense it hasn’t happened there yet.

Two, and perhaps the most understated factor, is voting. A lot of Americans don’t vote. This is especially true in state and local elections. That’s why there are so many popular policy issues that are disjointed from actual legislation. It’s also why timing — like pushing a policy initiative during a big election year — is so important. We just saw that in Florida, where voters passed a minimum wage increase at the state level in a high turnout presidential year. The question is whether those voters will continue to show up and push through that kind of legislation in non-presidential election years. Consider me skeptical.

Want to ask a question? Simply reply to this email and write in. Alternatively, you can fill out this Google form to submit a question.

A story that matters.

Florida is on the verge of passing legislation that would fine social media companies like Twitter and Facebook for de-platforming political candidates. The bill was proposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in February, but it passed the Florida House of Representatives last Thursday. From The Verge: “The law wouldn’t apply to temporary social media bans on a candidate, and wouldn’t apply to instances where a platform removes specific posts that violate that platform’s terms of service. But any social media ban that lasts longer than 60 days would result in a fine, and, the platforms would have to make available to users any content the candidate posted before their account became inactive.”


  • 64%. The percentage of Americans who say they are optimistic about the direction of the country, according to a new ABC/Ipsos poll.
  • 94. The number of immigration-related executive orders Joe Biden signed in his first 100 days in office.
  • 30. The number of immigration-related executive orders Donald Trump signed in his first 100 days in office.
  • 77%. The percentage of Americans who support President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, according to a CBS/YouGov poll.
  • 63%. The percentage of Republicans who support President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, according to a CBS/YouGov poll.
  • 27%. The drop in coronavirus cases in the United States over the last 14 days.
  • 299. The number of new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. yesterday.


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Have a nice day.

For months, Mike Cohen was living inside and attached to a machine that was keeping him alive. The 32-year-old cancer survivor, whose treatment had given him heart issues — including a blot clot — could no longer participate in his active hobbies because he needed to be plugged into a machine that pumped blood for his heart at all times. But then Cohen got a heart transplant. And to celebrate his return to normal life, he decided to bike across the country to meet the parents of the man whose heart he now had. You might want to buckle up for this tear-jerker. (Reader’s Digest)

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