“America is not a racist country,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) declared, directly after accusing liberals of calling him the “n-word” and “Uncle Tom.”

So what does that signify, then? That the entirety of America isn’t racist, just half?

This was the sort of confusion that bedeviled the senator’s rebuttal to President Biden’s joint address of Congress last night, a response that came off as both confounding and disingenuously unresponsive to Biden’s words.

Scott spent much of his rebuttal pushing back against a race-forward speech that the president didn’t actually give. It was a way to signal to the GOP, at least, that he was awake to their preferred line of attack — that the best way to slime Democrats was to portray them as critical race theory-obsessed, reverse-racist oppressors of the everyday Americans who just want to be free to read the spicy parts of old Dr. Seuss books and gender their potatoes in peace.

Yet coming from the senator, it all seemed more transparently cynical than he might have wished.

The problem, at least on some level, was that Tim Scott is Black. He has experienced what being Black means in the United States, and knows that racism exists. He clearly struggles to pretend that this is not the case. 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.

“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.

“Our healing is not finished.” But maybe everyone — especially Joe Biden — should shut up about it.

This was to be expected, I suppose. The rebuttal is pre-written, and Republicans seem to have decided that red meat about racial justice is the best way to get the base riled up.

But what did the joint address actually contain? Biden, an affable, nonthreatening White man, spoke hopefully about curing cancer and removing lead from pipes. He plugged his infrastructure plan and pushed for bundles of new spending on children and families. He did approvingly cite the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — the main provisions of which, despite grumbles from the GOP, receive a majority of voter support.

This speaks to the trouble Republicans are having — and will continue to have — landing their culture-war hits on Biden. His policies may be progressive, and his spending plans may be historically big, but all this reads as moderate because of his collegial, nonthreatening veneer. This is his superpower, one for which Republicans have not developed an effective Kryptonite. Tim Scott tried the race card, but even that didn’t deliver.

Read more: