Indeed, the senator has spent plenty of time lately at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. When the unified Republican government made tax reform its top priority—after failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—he emerged as a star player, one of four senators who crafted the legislation and worked alongside the administration to win over holdouts. Scott’s repeat visits to the White House were punctuated by a victory lap on the South Lawn after Congress passed the GOP tax plan. It should have been a crowning moment in his career—not only for the role he played in writing and passing the law, but because he had triumphed in securing bipartisan language in the final product that accomplished a longtime goal: creating “Opportunity Zones” across America, with tax incentives offered for investing in poor communities. (He makes a point of noting that both urban and rural areas will benefit.) When Scott took his place at the ceremony on the afternoon of December 20—flanking President Donald Trump, right next to Speaker Paul Ryan—the extent of his influence was on full display.
But that’s not what everyone saw. Just minutes before Trump invited Scott to speak at the lectern, Andy Ostroy, a HuffPost blogger, tweeted: “What a shocker … there’s ONE black person there and sure enough they have him standing right next to the mic like a manipulated prop. Way to go @SenatorTimScott.” When the event ended, Scott opened Twitter and spotted the comment. He responded: “Uh probably because I helped write the bill for the past year, have multiple provisions included, got multiple Senators on board over the last week and have worked on tax reform my entire time in Congress. But if you’d rather just see my skin color, pls feel free.”
The exchange crystallized the central dilemma of Scott’s political existence. Concerned about narrowing his brand, the senator long has tried to downplay his ethnic exceptionalism and avoid the role of race-relations ambassador for the GOP. And yet Scott, now more than ever, cannot seem to escape being perceived as such. He is not just a generic black Republican in a generic period of history; he is the most powerful and prominent black elected official in America, serving at a time of heightened racial tension and widespread accusations of xenophobia against his own party and the president who leads it. This ensures that Scott wears a target on his back regardless of the issue or crisis at hand. When race is involved, the stakes are even higher, forcing upon him decisions of personal and political identity: Scott can choose to stay silent and be accused of selling out his heritage, or speak out and be defined by his blackness.