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President Biden, GOP's Tim Scott Offer Diverging Views Of Race In America

Left: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina walks through the U.S. Capitol before delivering the GOP response to President Biden's address to a joint session of Congress.
Left: Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina walks through the U.S. Capitol before delivering the GOP response to President Biden's address to a joint session of Congress.

President Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday and the official Republican response that followed offered two contrasting perspectives on race in America.

Biden's remarks, on the eve of his 100th day in office, came during a renewed moment of reckoning over race and justice after a former Minneapolis police officer was convicted in the murder of George Floyd, and as subsequent fatal shootings by law enforcement gripped the nation. The president issued an urgent call for action, declaring that "we have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans."

He called on the country to come together to "root out systemic racism that plagues America" in myriad ways, a promise that echoes back to Biden's campaign pledges that led a multiracial coalition to vote him and Vice President Harris into office.

Speaking shortly after Biden, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., drew on his lived experiences to rebut Biden's agenda in a wide-ranging speech.

Scott, who is one of only 11 Black lawmakers to have served in the Senate and the only Republican currently among them, repeated that he has "experienced the pain of discrimination," including his own troubling encounters with law enforcement. But he also declared that "America is not a racist country" and warned that "it's wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present."

Harris, the first person of color to serve as vice president, was asked to respond to Scott's statement on ABC's Good Morning America. "No, I don't think America is a racist country," Harris said. "But we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today."

Leah Wright Rigueur, a historian and the author of the book The Loneliness of the Black Republican, said that in many ways there was a lot of overlap between the speeches that Biden and Scott gave as it relates to the issue of race and policing. Biden talked broadly about the experiences that Black people in this country have in encounters with law enforcement, while Scott discussed his personal experiences as a Black man.

She said that the place where the speeches diverged is in the conclusions they draw from those experiences.

"The clear difference came at the end, where Tim Scott was unwilling to say that we're talking about white supremacy. We're talking about a racism that goes deep in this country and that we have to address head-on," she said. "And so that's where there is a clear difference. And I think the juxtaposition of a white man calling out white supremacy and a Black man unwilling to do so is actually quite striking."

Part of the reason why those conclusions may have been so different is their intended audiences. Biden's joint address was his first opportunity to lay out his ambitious agenda for government to the American people amid a deeply polarizing moment in politics to which he offers himself as an antidote.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist from South Carolina, said Biden gave an "inclusive" speech that did not lose sight of "who butters his bread," namely the important and impatient coalition of voters that elected him — including the Black voters who played a key role in the president's 2020 primary and general election victories as well as in delivering Democrats the control of the Senate.

"So often people forget about the people that brought them to the dance when they move from campaign to governance, and [Biden] stays laser-focused on that as relates to delivering on an agenda," Seawright said.

Scott's speech, meanwhile, was aimed at a Republican Party seeking to define itself after the Trump presidency, Wright Rigueur and Seawright agreed.

"I think there are people who do not look like Tim Scott, but share the same politics with Tim Scott. They look for him to be kind of the North Star on these issues," Seawright said. "The fact that he could not take a big moment like last night, speak truth to power and talk about these issues in such a way that they do not seem like they are partisan issues ... as a Black man from the South and a Republican, he really missed an opportunity, I think."

Scott's speech came as he is playing a leading role in bipartisan negotiations over policing legislation.

In his speech, Scott discussed the police reform bill that he introduced last summer, aimed at creating incentives for local law enforcement agencies to reform their policies, but that did not gain support from Democratic lawmakers. He said that "my friends across the aisle seemed to want the issue more than they wanted a solution."

But the issue gained traction when much of the public was galvanized after Floyd's murder was captured on video by a bystander, sparking nationwide protests. During his speech, Biden urged lawmakers to pass policing overhaul legislation by the first anniversary of Floyd's death next month.

On Thursday, Scott was set to meet with Democratic negotiators over the prospects for a bipartisan deal on police reform legislation. He also met with members of Floyd's family. Wright Rigueur said that on this issue, Scott is walking a tightrope.

"We know that Tim Scott is actually invested in many of the provisions that are included in these different versions of the bill. But we also know that Tim Scott has to mediate what his party is pushing for," she said. "So he has to do double duty."

Biden is striking his own version of that balance as he seeks to unify the country in a time of intense racial division. He rejects calls on the left to "defund the police" and casts himself as an ally of law enforcement while pushing an agenda to reduce systemic racism and deadly encounters between police and Black Americans.

When Biden referred to the "knee of injustice" in his address, he quickly followed with this: "The vast majority of men and women wearing a uniform and a badge serve our communities and they serve them honorably. I know them. I know they want — I know they want to help meet this moment as well."

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