Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) made history on Tuesday, becoming only the fifth African American ever elected to the Senate. Scott will now belong to a cohort of three black Republicans -- along with Reps.-elect Will Hurd (R-Tex.) and Mia Love (R-Utah) -- in Congress who all broke barriers and who will likely be out front on various issues, both symbolically and substantively. (Scott is pushing for education reforms and school choice, for example.)
And unavoidably, Scott and the other black Republicans will also be in the position of speaking for their party on matters of race. They will fill the anti-Al Sharpton slot and be called upon to rebut perceptions that the GOP is a party of white men. (And it's not just with race; it happens with gender too. Expect to see a lot of Sen.-elect Joni Ernst.)
Accordingly, on Fox News on Wednesday night, Scott was asked to respond to comments made my Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y) suggesting that Republicans "believe that slavery isn't over and that they won the Civil War."
Scott called Rangel's comments "ridiculous." And he's got a point. Scott then insisted on focusing on "tomorrow, not on yesterday," rather than "harken back to a 100 years ago, or 70 ago."
"The lowest common denominator of fear and race-baiting is something that the other party has tried to do, and the voters said 'No.' They rejected it. And that's good news," Scott said, pointing to Indian-American Govs. Nikki Haley (S.C.) and Bobby Jindal (La.) as proof of the progress the party has made in the South.
But Scott would be wise not to downplay his own party's often sordid use of race in political campaigns past.
This approach, to borrow a phrase from one Pee Wee Herman, could be called the "I know you are but what am I" strategy. Rather than acknowledge that, yes, Republicans have often used race as a political wedge in recent decades, the preferred response by Scott and others has been to ignore it and tout the progress instead. It is a partisan argument about racial progress that is wrapped in the language of race neutrality. It is naming race and then pretending it doesn't exist. (Like Love, Scott said voters didn't pick him because of his race.)
Notably, when Haley named Scott to the seat, she fully acknowledged his race, but said it had nothing to do with his appointment. “It is important to me, as a minority female, that Congressman Scott earned this seat,” Haley said in December 2012. “He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat with the results he has shown.”
Haley wouldn't have said this -- essentially, 'there's no affirmative action to see here' -- if she had tapped a white man instead.
Yes, there has been progress, and there will likely be much more. Scott and Haley and Jindal are part of that story.
But there's also another story with equal import that gets less frequent telling. It is the one about the very recent and lingering history of race-baiting by Republicans. It's what led former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman to apologize in 2005 at an NAACP event for the GOP's attempts to "benefit politically from racial polarization." It's what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is hinting at when he talks about his party's brand among African Americans.
They weren't talking about something that happened 100, 70, or even 50 years ago.
During the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina, where the Confederate battle flag flies on the State House lawn, conservatives mounted a whispering campaign about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fathering an "illegitimate black child."
And in North Carolina, Jesse Helms famously ran the "Hands" ad that explicitly stoked racial resentment. That was in 1990.
More recently, Obama's presidency has sparked a rash of racially tinged comments and reactions from conservatives that Colin Powell, citing birtherism, has called a "dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party."
The singularity of Love and Scott is as much a story of how far the country and the GOP have come as it is about the crippling effects of racism and sexism on the body politic. Acknowledging that stark reality doesn't invalidate progress.
Scott, as a son of the South, does have a unique vantage point of our nation's ongoing racial drama. As part of the GOP efforts in racial re-branding of which Scott is a key part, acknowledging the low points would be better than ignoring them. It would be a marker of progress in and of itself -- an effort worthy of their pursuit.