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August 2017 was the infamous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. What should have been a sparse gathering turned into a horrific event. Later that day, when I heard the exchange between a reporter and President Trump, I was concerned. His conjecture that “there were fine people on both sides” bothered me. A day or so after, I was asked about it during an interview.
“I believe the president has compromised his moral authority to lead,” I said. “As we look to the future, it’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, his moral authority remains compromised. What the president should do before he says something is to sit down and become better acquainted, have a personal connection to the painful history of racism and bigotry of this country. It would be fantastic if he sat down with a group of folks who endured the pain of the sixties… the humiliation of the fifties and the sixties. This would be an opportunity for him to become better educated and acquainted with the looping history of so many folks, from John Lewis to my mother and so many others, who have gone through the painful parts of the history of this country.”
President Trump’s ardent supporters immediately attacked me. My Twitter account blew up with people calling me a traitor, a turncoat, and worse.
Not long after, my phone rang. “Senator Scott, President Trump would love to have a chat with you to talk about your interview yesterday.”
I knew what I was up against. But I also knew I needed to stand my ground. “Of course,” I said. “Let’s set it up. I’m looking forward to it.”
As we entered the Oval Office, President Trump rose and walked toward us with a big smile. He seemed almost jovial as he greeted us.
“Okay, Tim. I saw your interview yesterday. You and I don’t see that situation the same. I really want to hear what you have to say.”
For a moment I was shocked. This was the last thing I expected. For the next twenty minutes I told President Trump the stories of my grandaddy and my mother. I told him stories of things I had faced in my childhood. While I painted a picture of our collective journey, I also spoke of the way many people like to pretend the journey is already complete.
“There are so many people of color, young and old, who are hurting, who have spent their entire lives without ever feeling valued or even seen. While we have come so far as a nation,” I said, “any comment that could even be slightly construed as positive toward white supremacists is just wrong.”
For those twenty minutes President Trump didn’t say a word. He just listened.
“There are a whole lot of people out there who heard what you said and were wounded by it,” I told him.
“Okay,” President Trump said. “So tell me how to help those I have offended. How do I help the people who are hurting?”
I began to paint the picture of a plan I’d been dreaming of that would bring serious private investment into lower-income neighborhoods, what I had dubbed “opportunity zones.” While the president had listened intently the entire time, he became excited when our conversation came to the subject of rebuilding communities.
“Tim, I understand incentives better than anyone. Listen, I’m a dealmaker. It’s what I’m great at. I think this idea doesn’t just help one group; it moves the economy of the entire nation forward. Right? This is what we need. Something that creates success in America.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, getting excited as well. “People are always talking about the United States being the land of opportunity, but for me the biggest question has always been: Are those opportunities available for every American no matter where they live? And I don’t believe they are, Mr. President.”
“Okay,” he said. “Explain.”
“I had friends growing up who were brilliant. And I don’t mean just smart; they were hard workers. These guys could really hustle. But a few of them ended up selling drugs or making bad choices, not because they were bad kids, but because the only clear opportunities in front of them weren’t good.”
“Sure.” President Trump raised a skeptical eyebrow. “But I’ve heard a little of your story. You made it out. You obviously found the right opportunities.”
“I did, yes sir. But I had a praying mother, loving grandparents, and mentors who poured into my life. Not every kid is so blessed. When there are no businesses in your neighborhood, where do you apply for a job? When there are no restaurants nearby, what drives people to visit your neighborhood and spend money there? If there are no people coming to your neighborhood, there is no reason for businesses to invest. Without investment, there is little community engagement. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to greater disparity with each passing generation. We need to create a reason for the builders, for the Donald Trumps of the world, to invest in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. This is the only way to bring opportunities to the people who live there. The more private investment we can steer into the poorest zip codes, the better the outcome will be for our nation.”
“I love this! I do, Tim! Let’s get this done,” he said as he stood and excitedly extended his hand. “Let’s make things grow and make them better! Our country needs to be better about these kinds of things.”
From that day forward, I was able to utilize the power of the president of the United States and his influence to make opportunity zones a reality. It came to fruition through the 2017 tax reform bill. To date, more than $75 billion of private equity has been committed to these neighborhoods throughout the country, and that number is ever expanding. This is one of the things I am most proud of, and it would not have been possible without the aid of President Trump.
Excerpted from America, a Redemption Story: Choosing Hope, Creating Unity ©2022 Tim Scott and reprinted by permission from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins Christian Publishing.