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Tim Scott’s Racial Absolution

by Hataf Finance
6 minutes read

On the Presidential-campaign trail, Tim Scott often concludes his speeches with a declaration against dependence: Able-bodied people should work. Those who owe loans should pay them. The country needs more victors than victims. This summer, at an event in Des Moines, an audience of largely white evangelical voters applauded him heartily as he made his way offstage. At a table in the back of the auditorium was Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host turned conservative media magnate, whose outlet had been running a live stream. Scott slipped on a pair of chunky headphones and sat down with Beck for an interview.

“I love you, you know that,” Beck told him. He felt differently, however, about Scott’s home state.

“Historically, I’m pissed off at South Carolina,” Beck said. “The Civil War started—”

“In Charleston,” Scott interrupted, pointing to himself. “My home town.”

“Do you ever think about how far we have come?” Beck asked. “That the state that was the centerpiece at the beginning, that has caused all of these problems, and then started the Civil War—you are now a beloved senator of that same state?”

It was the type of question, with its yearning for racial absolution, that Scott has often seized. “I’m African American, as you can tell,” he said, and he invited Beck to “think about my journey.” His grandfather had only an elementary-school education; his mother grew up in a society in which Black people were not allowed to drink from certain water fountains; he pointed out to Beck that, despite all of that history, he was able to defeat white candidates with deep political legacies to become a member of Congress.

“America works,” Scott told him.

The sins of the Civil War, made clean through Scott’s powerful ascent. For a certain kind of white Republican voter, Scott’s political career represents an escape valve in a society pressurized by its racist past. Black voters, many in his own community, have resented him for similar reasons. They’ve warned for years that Scott looks at the country through a concave mirror shaped by his own experience, distorting his personal success and minimizing the larger struggles that come with being Black in America.

Speaking to Beck, Scott marshalled an early example of that personal success. When he was in eighth grade,“there was a race riot at the high school my brother was at, that I was going to attend the next year,” he told him. “Four years later, I’m the president of the student government of that high school.”

“Wow,” Beck said.

He went on, “When people talk about American progress and they pretend like it stopped in 1963, it is a lie from the pit of hell.”

Scott presents this high-school victory as a tidy tale of racism overcome by personal determination. But it’s not quite the triumph that he has made it out to be. Scott’s experience at R. B. Stall High School—and what happened both to him and to the school in the years that followed—offers a different kind of American story, one that’s messier and more complicated, with very different implications for how progress works.

Go back to North Charleston, 1970, nearly a decade before the “race riot.” That spring, Black schoolchildren in the community received surprising news. More than fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, the school district conceded that it could no longer defy the Supreme Court’s integration mandate. Many students who were scheduled to attend Bonds-Wilson, the city’s all-Black high school, would instead be distributed among three of the city’s previously white schools.

Bonds-Wilson had been built around 1950 in a last-ditch effort to prove that the state could adhere to the principles of “separate but equal.” It nevertheless became a beloved institution for the Black community, a school within walking distance for many of its students, with instructors who actually lived in the neighborhood. “Before a game, the marching band would come down my street,” Donna McQueen, now a lawyer, told me. As a child, she would sit on top of the stone wall in front of her family’s home, listening for soul and rock music in the distance. Then she’d see them: a mass of teen-agers in freshly pressed blue-and-gold uniforms, marching in unison alongside high-stepping, hip-shaking majorettes. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I am going to lead that band,’ ” she said.

The year after Bonds-Wilson was broken up, McQueen, who was in eighth grade, joined Black students who were being bused to the new schools. A small contingent went to Stall. “Stall was in an all-white neighborhood,” McQueen said. “Next to it was all forest. So, if something happened, there would be nowhere to run.”

Juanita Sanders was a student on one of those buses. Her parents had encouraged her to focus on her schoolwork. But, as the bus pulled into the campus, Sanders saw a group of white classmates waiting in the parking lot, staring at them. “The problems started immediately,” Sanders told me. She was in the bathroom one day, early on, when a white student confronted her. “Get out of the bathroom, nigger,” the student said. “You don’t belong here.” Sanders punched her. “It was a fight, every day,” she recalled.

Inside the classroom, Sanders confronted the limits of her supposedly “equal” previous education. In her old elementary school, she had been at the top of her class. Now she was so far behind that it felt like she had been using an entirely different set of textbooks. Although many staff members at Stall clearly treated Black students worse than their white counterparts, some teachers made an extra effort to help them catch up. In 1973, McQueen’s sophomore year, a teacher named Karen Cabe Gibson joined the school. She had grown up in rural North Carolina and wanted to work at an all-Black high school in Charleston after college. She told me that the county superintendent rejected her request. “He said he was not going to put a young white girl over there,” Gibson said.

The teachers’ union fought the decision, but in the meantime Gibson was offered a job at Stall. She welcomed the sight of Black and white students sitting together in her classroom. Most hailed from poor and working-class neighborhoods—race was the biggest difference among them. “They had a hard time being friends with each other,” Gibson said. She taught civics and political science, and tried to ease tensions with class discussions. “If you do not allow people to be treated equally, then you’re in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Gibson would tell her students.

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