On Friday, The Washington Post’s “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler published his inconclusive look into the family history of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate, and whether he’d really gone from “cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” as the conservative lawmaker has claimed.
Yes, this was real life — and yes, the piece, “Tim Scott often talks about his grandfather and cotton. There’s more to that tale,” was horrendously offensive.
Scott has told the story of his grandfather, Artis Ware, who dropped out of school to pick cotton and never learned to read and write, most recently at the Republican National Convention, where he said Ware had “suffered the indignity of being forced out of school as a third-grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write” and that his family “went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.”
“The tale of his grandfather fits in with a narrative of Scott moving up from humble circumstances to reach a position of political power in the U.S. Senate,” Kessler wrote.
However, he also pointed to Scott having mentioned that his grandfather owned 900 acres of land. This was the basis for his fact-check into the senator’s black family and the story of their going from farming in the Jim Crow South to the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress in a mere lifetime.
Pulling on this yarn, Kessler found that the Ware family history was … well, actually really impressive. This wayward fact-checker may have actually done Scott a favor by digging into U.S. Census records and finding that his family was among the small group of “enterprising” post-Emancipation southern black farmers who owned land as a means of escaping sharecropping and achieving independence and self-reliance.
The best he was able to conclude was that Scott’s “congress to Cotton” claim was “missing some nuance,” and opted then not to rate it with the “Pinocchios” he usually gives a false claim because, well, it doesn’t seem like anything Scott has said was actually false.
It would have been very easy for Kessler to have shared what he found about Scott’s family history without casting a subtly racist sheen over the whole thing by attempting to undermine the conservative senator’s story of their journey from the Jim Crow South to the Senate.
I mean, really, what was he even thinking?
This was a question asked by many amid the swift and fierce backlash that followed the piece, and it is, in this dark era of deep cultural divides, a breath of fresh air to see that the outcry came from those across the political spectrum, both from Scott’s home state and beyond.
Former South Carolina Democratic state lawmaker Bakari Sellers wondered, “Who on earth thought this was a good idea?”
Who thought this was a good idea? https://t.co/019Sxf9V9l
— Bakari Sellers (@Bakari_Sellers) April 23, 2021
“What WaPo did to @SenatorTimScott is shameful,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted. “When minorities refuse to be victims, disagree with liberal talking points, and think for ourselves, the media shames us and questions our credibility.”
What WaPo did to @SenatorTimScott is shameful.
When minorities refuse to be victims, disagree with liberal talking points, and think for ourselves, the media shames us and questions our credibility.
It’s why we must fight harder for conservative values that lift us all up. https://t.co/k7Qnle7gHz
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) April 23, 2021
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson made a powerful point when he noted Kessler and his team’s research had been drawn from the official records of an era of real, official systemic racism.
“This is actually what racism of white elite often looks like,” he wrote. “They don’t look at the story as lived, but as told by banks and legal records written at a time white society behaved one way and recorded things a different way.”
This is actually what racism of white elite often looks like. They don’t look at the story as lived, but as told by banks and legal records written at a time white society behaved one way and recorded things a different way.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) April 23, 2021
California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass defended Scott as “honorable,” adding, “It doesn’t matter what party you’re in – the journey of his family, from cotton to Congress in one lifetime, should be celebrated.”
Tim Scott is an honorable man. It doesn’t matter what party you’re in – the journey of his family, from cotton to Congress in one lifetime, should be celebrated.https://t.co/W3vbIwI3nZ
— Karen Bass (@KarenBassTweets) April 24, 2021
These are comments that the very white Kessler would do well to heed next time he tries to fact-check a black politician’s blackness.
Twitter proved to be a goldmine of more examples of well-deserved outrage and indignation over this dumpster fire of a fact-check.
Glenn Kessler’s “fact check” of whether Tim Scott’s grandfather *really* picked cotton is the most cringe inducing thing I have seen in an American newspaper in many years.
— Matthew Walther (@matthewwalther) April 23, 2021
I still can’t get over that @GlennKesslerWP, whose great-grandfather built what is now the Shell Oil Company, fact-checked whether Tim Scott’s familial legacy as Black southern farmers in the 1800s was sufficiently humble.
— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) April 23, 2021
“Why doesn’t Tim Scott talk about how good his Black southern ancestors in the 1800s had it?” The Washington Post wonders aloud.
— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) April 23, 2021
Scott is the first African-American senator to be elected from South Carolina, the first black senator from the South since the Reconstruction era, the seventh black senator to serve overall, and, when former Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Mo Cowan was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2013, the two became the first to serve at the same time as another African-American senator.
Tim Scott is a great and impressive black American and one whose political ideology or “nuanced” family history should never, ever undermine his ability to speak to the black experience.
It is completely sick and inappropriate for Kessler to subtly try to whitesplain away Scott’s blackness, but it was a humiliating self-own that he instead managed to further highlight an inspiring story of black success at the cost of his own reputation.
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