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Journalist Digs Into Sen. Tim Scott's 'Tidy' Origin Story After Comments On Racism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're interested in politics, you probably caught wind of the firestorm set off last week by something Senator Tim Scott said when he offered the Republican response to President Joe Biden's address to Congress on Wednesday night. Senator Scott, who is from South Carolina and the only Black Republican in the Senate, fervently declared that, quote, "America is not a racist country," end quote. That line triggered days of debate over racism in this country, but we wanted to focus on another line from Scott's speech, one that also caused a controversy in political circles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM SCOTT: Just last week, a national newspaper suggested my family's poverty was actually privilege because a relative owned land generations before my time.

MARTIN: That newspaper is The Washington Post. Recently, the paper's fact-checker, journalist and editor Glenn Kessler, looked into Senator Scott's so-called origin story. And he joins us now to talk about his reporting and why his story seemed to kick up so much dust. Glenn Kessler, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GLENN KESSLER: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So I understand that this is a story that Senator Scott tells often on the campaign trail and in public events where he's talking about himself. I mean, it's something that I think a lot of public figures do. They have kind of a story of their lives that they share. What made you want to look into the backstory, and how did you do it?

KESSLER: Well, you know, we often look at origin stories because it sheds a light on the politician. And - you know, and sometimes it gets a little too tidy for political consumption, so that makes it interesting in terms of fact-checking. And we ended up looking at a variety of census and property records. The article acknowledges that Senator Scott may not have known his full family history and that the census records regarding the lives of Black Americans can be inconsistent. But some critics have twisted that appropriate caution to suggest that all of the documentation in the article is suspect. I also obtained property and other records that expanded on information in the census, and those records are not in dispute. And those property records show how much land his great-grandfather purchased. And he appears to have been one of the biggest landowners, white or Black, in Aiken County at the time.

MARTIN: Yeah. In your Fact Checker article, you talk about both Tim Scott's consistent references to his grandfather who, quote, "dropped out of elementary school to work in the fields and pick cotton," and Scott's passed acknowledgement of this great-great-grandfather who owned a substantial amount of land, 900 acres, in South Carolina. I would think that that might be something to be proud of. So did you have an inkling that Senator Scott would be upset about this? And why do you think he is?

KESSLER: You know, I did not have an inkling. I mean, I'll explain. I gave Scott and his staff every opportunity to respond to my research. On March 26, four weeks before the article was published, I sent his staff many of the documents and an outline of my questions. I was told I would be getting a call from the senator to discuss what I had found. I told his staff I was not trying to play gotcha. I was being completely transparent. And I even sent them a detailed list of every question I hoped he would answer. Ultimately, they said he was too busy to talk to me.

MARTIN: So - but why would a story about your ancestors being successful, especially at a time when the odds were so stacked against them, be viewed as a negative thing? I mean, you point that out in your piece. You point out that this was a remarkable achievement.

KESSLER: Right. Right. Well, you know, part of his political origin story is this story of coming from virtually nothing to the heights of the Senate. You know, by his account, he was raised largely by a single mother in poor circumstances. And like I said, his story on the campaign trail was a bit too tidy for popular consumption.

If I had been able to talk to him, I would have - you know, he was 10 or 11 when his great-grandfather died, so I was curious if he had ever visited this farm and what his impressions of it were. You know - and, in fact, I could only - for the great-great-grandfather, he says he had 900 acres. I could only find records for about 170 acres. So I was wondering if that was a bit of family lore. And, you know, he says his grandfather could not read or write, but the records indicate that his great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather could read and write. So those were inconsistencies there, and maybe that's a little uncomfortable for him to talk about.

MARTIN: Well, I want to point out that you say in your piece that Black farmers often lost land because of disputes with relatives, unpaid tax bills or a failure to obtain loans when crops failed. And there's been tremendous documentation about the discrimination that these farmers experienced with land bureaus that, you know, openly and often to their faces, you know, told them that they weren't going to help them, and then they would help white farmers.

One of the things that fascinated me about this piece is how some people from South Carolina, in particular - political figures on both the right and the left - have been critical of this piece. The former South Carolina governor, the former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, called the piece shameful. She said on Twitter, when minorities refuse to be victims, disagree with liberal talking points and think for ourselves, the media shames us and questions our credibility. But Bakari Sellers, a Democrat, a former South Carolina legislator - and many people probably see him as a political commentator on CNN - also tweeted, you know, who thought this was a good idea?

What do you make of that? Like, why would that be considered shocking or shameful or, you know, upsetting? I mean, these genealogy shows, which are quite popular, often do the very same thing, and people find things out that they did not know. They may find out that an ancestor owned slaves, or they might find out that their ancestor sort of fought with distinction in the civil war, you know, in an all-Black regiment or something of that sort. And people generally are interested in this information. They're not angry that it was discovered. So what's your take on the reaction to it?

KESSLER: Well, you know, I think a lot of this is just politics. I mean, the word racist, which appeared in a number of right-wing publications, it seems to be intended to make a reporter think twice about conducting a detailed examination of Senator Scott or his background. We investigate the backgrounds of white politicians all the time. And certainly someone who is a potential candidate for president or vice president should expect a high degree of scrutiny.

But I have to admit, I was really surprised by the intensity of the reaction, much of which was fanned by Fox News. My parents are from the Netherlands, and a bunch of right-wing activists even falsely claimed on Twitter that my grandfather was a Nazi when, in fact, the Germans seized my grandfather's steel company, and he was placed in a detention camp because he refused to cooperate with the Nazis. And virtually everyone on my grandmother's side - on my mother's side - perished in the Holocaust because they were Jewish.

So it was not a very good day for me to see that spread with such vehement across the internet. And there was - not in any way did I ever suggest in the piece that Scott's great-grandfather lived a privileged life. I mean, after all, this is the Jim Crow South we're talking about.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what do you find most remarkable about this story, not the sort of distorted reaction to what you did not actually say, but just the story itself and what you learned? What did you find most remarkable about it?

KESSLER: What I found so interesting was the story of Black farmers in the South and how many lost their land because of the advantages the whites took. The whole southern coast of South Carolina was basically stolen from Black farmers - all those big resorts like Hilton Head. So that's a really interesting history. And it was - I was able to put Senator Scott's family in that context. There was more to it than just being raised by a single mother in poverty. There's a whole backstory there. And he has referenced it by mentioning the great-great-grandfather. So I was trying to fill in the gap and tell the rest of the story.

MARTIN: Glenn Kessler writes the Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. Glenn Kessler, thanks so much for joining us.

KESSLER: You're welcome.

MARTIN: If you're interested in reading the story for yourself, it's on The Washington Post website.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.