Tim Scott, Once Quiet on Matters of Race, Embraces Key Role on Police Reform


WASHINGTON — Senator Tim Scott has spent much of his career trying to avoid letting the color of his skin define his political identity, keeping a line at the ready to offer to new acquaintances: “I am a Christian who is a conservative,” he likes to say, “— and you may have noticed, I’m black.”

But when protests for racial justice erupted across the nation this month, thrusting Republicans onto the defensive as the public clamored for action to address systemic racism in policing, it was Mr. Scott who marched up to Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, and asked to write his party’s legislative response. The two men agreed that there was no one better for the job.

The offer, which set in motion the hasty drafting of legislation that Mr. Scott plans to unveil on Wednesday, was the culmination of a subtle transformation for the South Carolina Republican over the past five years. Once determined to make his name on issues like tax cuts and entrepreneurship, rather than his historic status as the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, Mr. Scott has bit by bit — sometimes reluctantly — become a leader in his party on matters of race.

After years of silence, he has spoken publicly on the Senate floor about being racially profiled by the police as a senator on Capitol Hill. It fell to him in 2017 to privately counsel President Trump about the long history of racism. And last week, Mr. Scott was the one who stood up in a roomful of white Republicans and made a private pitch for a proposal that could answer the strident calls for change — without betraying bedrock party principles.

The emerging bill is expected to be far narrower than the sweeping law enforcement overhaul that Democrats have proposed and far short of what civil rights leaders say is necessary, but its very existence reflects a personal and political journey for Mr. Scott and his view of what can reasonably become law.

“We can all sense the opportunity that is before us,” he said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “More than at any time I can remember, people of all ages and races are standing up together for the idea that Lady Justice must be blind.”

Friends and colleagues say Mr. Scott’s thinking on matters of race actually began to shift much earlier, in 2015, after his hometown, Charleston, confronted two tragedies in quick succession: the shooting by a white police officer of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, and then the massacre by a white supremacist of nine black churchgoers as they prayed at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Now, Republicans are looking to Mr. Scott, 54, to be the party’s leading voice in Congress’s first major debate about policing in a quarter-century, injecting an authoritative conservative voice — who, as he might put it, also happens to be African-American — into the mix.

“He has a particular strength in this moment that other people don’t have,” said Mark Sanford, a former congressman and governor of South Carolina who served alongside Mr. Scott. “It’s one thing for a white guy to stand up. It’s a very different thing for a black man to stand up and say, ‘Well, let me tell you about my personal experience.’”

Mr. Scott, who is frequently described as an eternal optimist guided by his faith, has an exceedingly difficult task. He is trying to balance calls from police unions who are resisting changes and civil rights groups that are clamoring for it, as well as conservative members of his own party and liberals like Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the only other black man in the Senate. He has been quietly keeping Mr. Trump abreast of his work.

His unyielding conservatism has also brought bitter and racist vitriol from the left, where some have accused him of betraying black Americans in service to his predominantly white party.

“Not surprising the last 24 hours have seen a lot of ‘token’ ‘boy’ or ‘you’re being used’ in my mentions,” Mr. Scott wrote on Twitter last week. “Let me get this straight…you DON’T want the person who has faced racial profiling by police, been pulled over dozens of times, or been speaking out for YEARS drafting this?”

Mr. Scott has made clear the bill he plans to introduce Wednesday will look quite different from that of Democrats, which would make it easier to prosecute and hold police officers liable for excessive use of force, outlaw chokeholds, and condition federal grants on anti-bias training and data collection. He has signaled that the reforms in his bill will largely be targeted at the local level, and has explicitly ruled out a Democratic measure to change qualified immunity, which shields police officers from being held legally liable for damages sought by citizens whose constitutional rights are found to have been violated.

“One of the other things that has been a big deal to him is this sense that if you are a black man in politics, you automatically agree with other black people in politics,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma and a close ally who is working with Mr. Scott on the bill. “There is this quiet kind of pigeonholing of people of color to say you all think alike.”

A spokesman declined to make Mr. Scott available for an interview.

Raised by a single mother who worked 16-hour days as a nurse’s aide, Mr. Scott grew up sharing a bedroom with his mother and older brother. He did not see the ocean, which carried his ancestors to the United States as slaves in the early 1800s, until he was a young man.

Mr. Scott has said the trajectory of his life began to change in high school,

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