Once reluctant, GOP's only Black senator now leads on race

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FILE - In this May 18, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump listens as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a meeting on opportunity zones in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. Initially reluctant to speak on race, Scott is now among the Republican Partys most prominent voices teaching his colleagues what its like to be a Black man in America. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON – When he first ran for office in 1994, they scrawled the N-word on his lawn signs. By the time he came to Congress, he had to unplug the phone lines because callers brought the staff to tears. Even after he became a U.S. senator, the Capitol quickly became just another place where he would be stopped by the police.

Initially reluctant to focus on race, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is now a leading Republican voice, teaching his party what it’s like to be a Black man in America when the police lights are flashing in the rearview mirror.

He has been pulled over by law enforcement "more than 18 times,” Scott said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’m thinking to myself how blessed and lucky I am to have 18 different encounters and to have walked away from each encounter.”

As the only Black Republican in the Senate, Scott's role is heavy with a certain weight. He is leading a task force of GOP senators drafting the Justice Act, law enforcement changes set for a test vote this week. But it's also a historic opportunity to speak to Republicans about race — as a conservative, a Christian and a Southerner from the state where the Civil War began.

He rejects the concept of systemic racism, which puts him at odds with many Black Democrats who demand a broader police overhaul than his proposed bill. Instead, he places his faith where he says he has seen the change, in people's hearts. He shares his experience as a Black American in the 21st century, including this year when he was pulled over for failing to signal early enough for a lane change — or, as he called it, stopped for “driving while Black.”

“I just can’t imagine the pressure he must be under, though, as the only African American Republican,” Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview.

“That he has to sit there with those senators and go through his experiences and hope that they have some measure of empathy,” said Bass, who is leading Democrats' policing bill and working with Scott, whom she has known for years.