That San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s could capture the nation’s attention by sitting during the National Anthem to protest oppression of minorities says a lot about the state of race relations in America. Compared to Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., however, Kaepernick’s behavior is protest juvenilia — a youthful and immature outburst over racial injustice.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), on the other hand, took on the same issues Kaepernick raised with class, courage and persuasion. In a personal and passionate floor speech last month, Scott recounted his own experience being stopped by police officers:
[T]he vast majority of our law enforcement officers have only two things in mind: protect and serve. But … we do have serious issues that must be resolved. In many cities and towns across the nation, there is a deep divide between the black community and law enforcement. A trust gap, a tension that has been growing for decades. And as a family, one American family, we cannot ignore these issues because while so many officers do good … Some simply do not. I’ve experienced it myself.
Scott then recounted how he had been stopped by police officers “not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official.”
I recall walking into an office building just last year after being here for five years on the Capitol, and the officer looked at me, a little attitude and said, “The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID.” I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself, either he thinks I’m committing a crime — impersonating a member of Congress — or, or what? Well, I’ll tell you that later that evening I received a phone call from his supervisor apologizing for the behavior. Mr. President, that is at least the third phone call that I’ve received from a supervisor or the chief of police since I’ve been in the Senate …
I think Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it so well: Returning violence with violence only leads to more violence and to even darker nights — nights, to paraphrase, without stars. There’s never, ever an acceptable reason to harm a member of our law enforcement community. Ever. I don’t want anyone to misinterpret the words that I am saying. Because even in the times of great darkness, there is light …
I simply ask you this. Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.
Scott and Kaepernick’s approaches reflect the two polar opposites in today’s discussion about race. Kaepernick’s view represents the hopelessness, bitterness, despair and inwardness of identity politics. His lack of self-awareness has inspired mockery rather than meaningful debate. The very people who might benefit from thinking more deeply about race aren’t going to listen to a whiny professional athlete who’s personal suffering includes sitting on the back of the bench while collecting a $19 million salary. And, as many have noted, the country for which Kaepernick is so ungrateful is the very thing that has enabled him to be so successful.
Scott, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. He understands that Dr. King didn’t deliver an “I Have an Identity” speech, but rather said “I Have a Dream.” In King and Scott’s view of America, the flag doesn’t represent sentimental patriotism or nationalism but the path to equality, opportunity and prosperity. Sometimes foreigners see this more clearly than Americans. As U2’s Bono is fond of saying, “America is not a country. It’s an idea … that is still being born.”
In the “Comeback” series on Opportunity Lives, Scott beautifully describes the American idea and the arc of the American dream in his own life.
“Sometimes people believe that we as Republicans don’t know any poor people. Unfortunately, every time I go home and see my family I walk into a neighborhood that’s still mired in poverty. What I hear are not requests for more government assistance but a leg up… Empowering the individual seems to be the solution.”
“My Senate agenda springs out of these neighborhoods. The thing that motivates me for public service today is the hope that I can in some help some of these kids experience their full potential.”
Scott’s personal story shows the power of the American idea.
“My grandfather set us up for success,” Scott says. “My family, in his lifetime, has gone from cotton to Congress. In America, all things are possible.”
Scott doesn’t gloss over America’s racial tensions and the complexity of the conversation. Yet, rather than sitting on the bench, he has gotten up and overcome indignities. He has adopted an outward servant leadership focus that strives to renew the Republican Party and the republic from within, starting with his own neighborhood.
And instead of adopting a tone of bitterness and despair, Scott offers courage, clarity and light that warms, reveals and convicts. Dr. King is right that there are stars in the darkest nights. Americans can be thankful one is shining brightly in the Senate.
John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.