Tim Scott’s Racial Absolution

Tim Scott’s Racial Absolution

The senator from South Carolina presents an early electoral victory—he became president of his high school, years after a “race riot”—as a tidy tale of prejudice overcome. Is that the full story?

Senator Tim Scott speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire wearing a light blue buttonup shirt and holding a microphone...
Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux

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.

Black students often complained to Gibson that they felt powerless. They were never able to secure enough votes to win homecoming queen or to lead the student government. As a co-sponsor of the Afro-American club, Gibson tried to help them strategize. “Well, you guys need to learn how to pool your votes,” she told them. Multiple Black students shouldn’t run for the same position. “At this point in the history of this country, you probably need to focus on who you want to get elected and put your votes all for that person.”

McQueen had dreamed of being a drum major, but after a couple of years performing in the Stall band—with its rigid rhythms and staid steps—she quit. In 1975, she decided to run for president of the student government. With encouragement from Gibson and other teachers, she figured she had a shot; she had good grades and was on the cheerleading squad. “You couldn’t do things back then just because you wanted to do them,” McQueen told me. “There had to be a reason. It had to be for your people.” Black students made up around thirteen per cent of the school; they supported McQueen, and she gathered enough additional white votes to prevail. Tim Scott frames his election as the school’s president as transformative, but it was McQueen who paved the way.

“I still don’t believe I won,” she told me, and apparently neither could some in the community. One morning, not long after McQueen’s victory, she was getting ready for school when she saw her father pick up the phone. It was the principal, who suggested that McQueen stay home—a burning cross had been found on the school’s front lawn. McQueen refused. She had perfect attendance, and she did not want to seem intimidated. She later petitioned the superintendent and her principal to host a countywide summit on race. She and a diverse group of other school presidents discussed why Black students were punished more harshly than white ones, and they pushed for staff and teachers to provide more opportunities for Black students, such as recommending them for Rotary Club scholarships.

McQueen sensed that her schoolmates, both Black and white, were rallying behind her. One time, she was in the school’s main office when she overheard a white parent complaining to the principal that the school had gone too far in empowering Black students. It would have been a dispiriting moment had it not been for the woman’s son, who was standing nearby. He made eye contact with McQueen and mouthed, “I voted for you.”

“That was one of those moments that I believed I had done something to make a difference,” McQueen said. “The kids accepted you even when their parents would not.” For students at the beginning of this project of integration, McQueen said that “high school felt like work.” After graduating, in 1976, she wanted the chance to just be a student, so she headed to Spelman College, a historically Black institution. She left Stall thinking that the school was in a good place. Two years later, though, a violent incident put the progress that McQueen had presided over into question.

No one knows for sure why the fight broke out. Gibson heard one explanation, a tale as old as the South: a Black boy said something to a white girl, which angered her boyfriend. Another story—possibly connected—was that two gangs, one Black and the other white, needed to settle a conflict. Earlier, a member of the white gang had supposedly punched a Black student so hard that his nose bled, and then bragged, “I got me a nigger.” According to an account published by the Charleston Post & Courier, Black students had been upset because white teen-agers had destroyed mailboxes in their neighborhood.

The different hypotheses shared a common theme: cross-racial coexistence at the school was so fragile that a minor incident could destroy it. On a Tuesday in April, 1978, Steve Brockmiller, a white underclassman, saw a group of Black students running through the parking lot. A group of white students burst through the school doors to confront them. The fight began, and then got bigger and bigger—Gibson recalled students jumping out of windows to join in. “Several of my friends got stabbed,” Brockmiller, who prided himself on having a multiracial circle of friends, told me. “They were all out there, and it was a bunch of fighting going on.” Police took about half an hour to calm things down. At least five students were arrested, and several were sent to the hospital.

Questions about interracial education resurfaced among parents and faculty. Police were stationed throughout the school, and students began to view one another with suspicion again. “Every time you passed someone that was Black, they looked at you,” Brockmiller said. “What were they sizing you up for? We all had gotten along. I didn’t understand how something could change so quick.”

By the fall of 1979, nine years after integration, many white families had fled Stall, and the proportion of Black students continued to increase. The new classes mostly came from integrated middle schools, and many had friends of different races. “We knew each other,” Kathy Simmons, Juanita Sanders’s younger sister, told me.

One of the freshmen was Timothy Eugene Scott. He had large brown eyes, a small Afro, and two buckteeth that his mother couldn’t afford to fix. His family had recently moved to a ranch home in one of North Charleston’s better-off neighborhoods, but he had grown up in a poorer, underdeveloped part of town. Neighbors there remember him running down dirt roads as a little boy, tossing a football and talking about going pro.

“We played football, football, and more football,” Adrian Williams, a childhood friend, told me.

Williams and Scott wound up together on the team at Stall. Both played running back. Scott had a reputation for being diligent and hardworking, maybe a tad arrogant, but not the type to make rousing speeches in the locker room at halftime. Off the field, his classmates remember him as an introvert, someone who was well liked and seemed eager to find community. He was not a dedicated academic. During his freshman year, he failed geography, civics, English, and Spanish. He often says, “When you fail English and Spanish, they don’t call you bilingual. They call you bi-ignant.”

As a sophomore, Scott began to improve. When he got to Gibson’s political-science class, he found himself particularly engaged and curious. Gibson loved discussing elections and often invited lawmakers to the classroom. She organized debates in which students had to learn how to understand and defend positions they didn’t necessarily hold, in subjects such as Latin American diplomacy and Middle East politics. Scott loved learning about the art of compromise, coalition building, and dealmaking.

During his junior year, Scott toyed around with the idea of running for president of the student government. A close friend and future prom date (it was not romantic) named Donna Neighbors, who was white, encouraged him. Together, they pasted signs across the school that read “Great Scott for Student Government President!” His opponent was a Filipina student named Mary Anne Veloso. She was “brilliant,” Gibson recalled.

The candidates had to deliver speeches in front of the student body. Veloso had many achievements to draw from: according to an alumni Web site, she had been class president her freshman and junior years, was a member of the art club and the orchestra, and read the announcements on the school’s P.A. system.

Scott deployed a different strategy. “Who wants a free lunch?” he said. The crowd laughed, and then cheered. Scott insisted he was going to be serious, then launched into his next joke: “Lunchtime is far too short!”

Gibson, who was moderating the event, started to smile. She wanted the school to take elections seriously—but Scott was charming. Students voted him in. In his victory, Gibson saw progress. Unlike McQueen, he didn’t need to rely on consolidating Black votes, nor did he express the same obligation to use the position to eradicate prejudice. There were no summits on racism; Scott helped to plan homecoming and an overnight retreat in a cabin.

Scott has claimed that most racism he experienced at Stall came from other Black students, who called him an Oreo. He didn’t sit in the predominantly Black section of the cafeteria, nor was he intensely involved in the Afro-American club. I spoke with some of his Black classmates from the time, who didn’t remember there being animus toward him. Darlesa West Barron, who was a year behind Scott, told me, “I can still see him—a big smile, making speeches. When I think about Tim Scott, it was, like, look at him, he wanted to be successful in the world.”

Growing up, Scott had witnessed two almost directly opposed ways of moving through the world as a Black person. His father, Ben, had fought in the Vietnam War. Scott wrote, in his book, “America, a Redemption Story,” that after his father returned he’d hear people call him “a n— baby killer.” His pain transformed into bitterness, and from bitterness into rage. “All I remember is the green shag carpet, the shouting, the sound of fists slamming into walls,” Scott recalled in the book. (He denied multiple requests for an interview.) When Scott was seven, his mother, Frances, packed up her green Plymouth Cricket, loaded Scott and his nine-year-old brother into it, and left their father behind.

The family moved in with Frances’s parents. Her father, Artis Ware, who had spent years picking cotton on his father’s farm, offered a different outlook on racism. “You can be bitter or you can be better,” he told his grandchildren. “But you can’t be both.”

Ware introduced Scott to Bobo Brazil, the brawny brawler who broke the color line in the world of professional wrestling—a Black man who could get white audiences to cheer for him. Scott remembers seeing Ware each morning at the dining table, sitting with his newspaper open. Scott later learned that this was a pantomime: his grandfather didn’t know how to read. The lesson stuck. Be self-reliant. Send the right message, even if it requires a bit of performative optimism.

In 1983, Scott graduated from Stall and went to Presbyterian College on a football scholarship. Sean Bennett, a state senator who graduated from Stall a couple of years after Scott, told me that Scott set a good example for how white and Black students could find some comity. But the struggles at Stall didn’t go away. During the next few decades, there would be more fights—in the parking lots, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways. On their surfaces, they were about girls or neighborhoods or disrespect. The undercurrents, though, were often racial. Meanwhile, the school’s white population continued to decrease as white families left the area. After electing multiple Black presidents, Stall was becoming segregated again.

One day in the early nineties, a local chapter of the Republican Party was gearing up for a meeting inside the North Charleston City Hall. Terrye Campsen Seckinger, who is now a commissioner on the state board of higher education, was chatting with a few attendees when she noticed something strange. “Out of the corner of my eyes, I see this Black guy,” Seckinger, who is white, told me. He was tall, and built, and seemed a little nervous—justifiably so. This was still South Carolina, where such meetings could be as segregated as church pews. An elderly woman approached him. “You are not welcome here,” she said. He made a face and headed for the exit. Seckinger chased after him.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she said. “I’m excited that you’re here. Tell me about you.” He told her that he was an insurance agent and that he had learned about business principles from a Republican who owned a Chick-fil-A, which was near a movie theatre where he worked in high school. He talked about the faith that he had found at a small Christian college before he transferred to Charleston Southern, and his interest in public service.

“I’ve been wanting to get involved for a while,” he said. “I’m Tim Scott.” Seckinger hoped that his presence would mark a new era for the Party. In a state like South Carolina, with its toxic history of racism, an ambassador such as Scott could demonstrate that the G.O.P. had moved past skin color. The local Republican Party poured money into a campaign to get Scott elected to the county council. A Black Republican? “This is going to be just one more nail in the Democrats’ coffin,” Henry McMaster, the state’s current governor, said at the time.

When Scott began to tell Black political leaders that he was running for office, they were not surprised. At events at the local N.A.A.C.P., he had given speeches in which he’d relay his own journey out of poverty and encourage attendees to start new businesses. What was shocking was the ticket he planned to run on.

“A Republican?” James Johnson, one of the state’s leading civil-rights activists, said. “Why would you do that?” Scott’s answer was “I want to be rich,” Johnson told me. Scott’s campaign denied this, but Scott has said that the Democratic Party told him “to wait my turn and go to the back of the line.”

Being a Republican had political advantages. The county was two-thirds white, and the council members weren’t elected from specific districts. Many white Republicans could get behind a Black man who spoke the language of Christian conservatism, which would help secure the broad countywide coalition Scott needed. In 1995, Scott won a seat on the Charleston County Council with a raft of white support, a feat that he said many could not have imagined. He told the Post & Courier that he had bigger ambitions: one day, he wanted to be Vice-President.

“Why not President?” someone asked.

“I thought about that,” he said. “But as Vice-President you get to speak more and have a forum to deliver messages.”

So began his political climb, to the state legislature, in 2009, to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 2011, and then, two years later, to the Senate—where he became the first Black member from the South since Reconstruction. He focussed on balancing budgets and cutting government spending. In Washington, D.C., he was cast as the conservative foil to Barack Obama, the evidence that Republicans presented when their opposition to the first Black President was characterized as racist.

Many Black people in North Charleston had just about given up on Scott’s politics long before. In 2001, the Department of Justice had filed a lawsuit claiming that the county’s lack of voting districts violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black votes: in the years leading up to the suit, candidates who won the majority of those votes were defeated in almost every instance. Scott’s base of support was majority white, and in his electoral victories the county found its defense. “We’ve already got a minority,” Barrett Lawrimore, the council chairman, told the New York Times. Scott later said, “The system does not discriminate.”

After the court ordered the county to move toward district-based elections, Scott altered his position. He heard about someone in the county government using a racial slur, one of several instances that prompted him to think that maybe the institution wasn’t color-blind. “I think the racial overtones of Charleston County government would be lessened with more minority representation, and my opinion has changed drastically since the beginning of last year,” Scott said. (Scott’s campaign now denies that he ever changed his mind.) Edward Bryant III, the former head of the local N.A.A.C.P., told me that it was the beginning of a pattern with Scott—it seemed as though he had to encounter racism on a personal level to acknowledge that it existed.

More than a decade later, two high-profile incidents—the police killing of Walter Scott and the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston—took place in Scott’s own community.

“What’s happening in North Charleston?” Scott asked Bryant after the police shooting.

“The same thing that always happens,” Bryant told him. He reiterated something that he had tried to convey to Scott since he had entered politics. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat. I don’t care if you’re a Republican, or you’re Green Party,” Bryant said. “Do something for your people.”

As proof that he has supported the Black community, Scott often cites his sponsorship of a piece of federal legislation, which passed in 2017, to give tax breaks to businesses that develop underserved, disproportionately minority neighborhoods, so-called opportunity zones. But, in 2019, a Times investigation found that the provision mostly helped wealthy developers with preëxisting plans to build high-end amenities in gentrifying neighborhoods, offering little to poor families who already lived there. Scott has fought successfully to reduce prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent offenses and attempted to pass some federal police reform after the murder of George Floyd, but he doesn’t emphasize those parts of his record today—they don’t jibe with his party’s tough-on-crime talking points.

Scott has recognized that he is not immune to some of the experiences that come with being a Black man in America. On the Senate floor, he has talked about anxiously watching videos of police killings, and growing frustrated at being racially profiled. In high school, he found notes with racial slurs written in his locker. He handles that sort of thing now as he did back then: by minimizing, by emphasizing forgiveness, by delivering a message of faith. “America can do for anyone what she has done for me,” he tells people on the trail.

In August, Scott appeared at a town hall in Charleston, the beginning of a campaign jag across his home state. The crowd was overwhelmingly white and white-haired. They sat at tables and nibbled on Chick-fil-A nuggets. Scott discussed border security and tax policy, but the people in attendance seemed more interested in talking to me about race.

Seckinger, who had stopped Scott from leaving the local G.O.P. meeting three decades ago, was there. She felt that Scott was heading toward his original political ambition. “I really want Tim to be Donald Trump’s Vice-President,” she told me. “The liberals would go crazy! They cannot stand a Black Republican—it’s, like, untenable for them. I don’t see Tim as Black. I see Tim as my friend. But, because he’s Black, it’s going to drive them crazy if he’s Vice-President. Isn’t that something?”

Standing nearby was Margaret Rittenbury, a woman with long hair and thick glasses, who clapped along enthusiastically. She had fallen in love with Scott’s politics after watching him at a Tea Party event in 2011. He’d pepper his talks with amens and hallelujahs. He’d describe Obama as a socialist and accuse Democrats of bankrupting the government. “We must be free to dream again,” Scott often said. “The entitlement mentality is simply uninspiring.” She marvelled at his grace, which she figured must have been hard-earned “coming up, as a Black man in the South, where, believe me, we can be mean.”

“I have metastatic cancer, but I’m going to stay alive to vote for him,” she told me, her voice breaking. “He knows this country—you know the story about him growing up in poverty and all that. And, I tell you, Stall High School was horrible. At least when I was a kid. I don’t try to be rude, but it was dangerous.”

Stall is still trying to break its reputation as “the school that fights.” I visited the school the following day. Stephen Larson, the principal, was walking around the cafeteria, trying to connect his cell phone to the speaker system. “Two years ago, we had more fights than there were school days,” he told me. “Last year, we reduced fights by sixty per cent.” “Break My Soul,” by Beyoncé, started to play, and some students were nae-naeing in the corner. Larson had discovered that good dance music could defuse tensions.

The fights at Stall today are no longer so-called race riots between Black and white students. Those ended—not because of a persuasive student-body president but because there are hardly any white students left. As in many schools across the country, white and Black students in North Charleston are more segregated now than they were in the eighties. Meanwhile, abundant construction jobs—partly the result of business development championed by Republicans—have drawn immigrants to the area, many of whom have settled in local trailer parks.

The school is in the midst of another demographic shift: from almost exclusively Black to Black and Latino. Its yearbook is printed in English and Spanish, and many of the new students are undocumented. As was the case in Scott’s household, their parents struggle to pay the bills. But America can’t do for them what it did for Scott. They would have a tough time getting to and from an after-school job—in South Carolina, being undocumented means that you can’t get a driver’s license. Taking accelerated courses at the local college would be a stretch, too—undocumented students don’t qualify for in-state tuition. Many of the area’s top students now go to charters and magnets; Stall is one of the worst-ranked schools in the state. (The best one in the county is a predominantly white magnet program that convenes on the old Bonds-Wilson campus.)

Larson has tried to build a decent school anyway. He partnered with a local clinic so that students can receive free health care. He added more staff members to keep a closer eye on students who are struggling. Graduation rates are ticking up. He talks a lot about “showering students with love.” Recently, he told a group of students, “You go to one of the best high schools.” They laughed at him.

Larson understands that there’s only so much he can control. He told me, “It’s a handshake that doesn’t feel right. We say, ‘We’ve got you. We’re going to take care of you for four years, or longer if necessary.’ But I don’t know what I can give you afterward.”

When Scott first became a U.S. senator, he teared up after being told that students from his old high school were going to watch him get sworn in live on television. His campaign told me that he has tried to raise money and create internships for the school. He delivered a commencement address in 2014 and visited in 2016. “The biggest mistake I made in life . . . was having dreams in high school that were too small,” he told students. “Whatever you think the best is that you can do, just double it.”

Nowadays, most of the students don’t even know that Scott went there, teachers told me. One of his most recent appearances was about six years ago, at an alumni event. Shawnta Brown, a parent and a racial-justice advocate, confronted Scott about the school’s poor test scores and the high levels of violence, an interaction that Scott’s campaign disputes. “You’re not doing anything for the school at all,” she said. “You got your jersey up on the wall, and these kids look up to it, and you’re not doing anything.” He smiled politely, Brown told me, then turned around and walked away. ♦

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