CAMDEN, S.C.

The tightrope one must walk when discussing race these days is especially perilous if you happen be Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

During his response Wednesday night to President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, Scott managed to keep his balance. He leveled strong and smart criticisms at Biden’s agenda for the next four years.

But you wouldn’t know it to read his critics on the left. The only Black Republican in the Senate, Scott was quickly trending as “Uncle Tim” on Twitter, as a tool of white supremacists and as a blind servant of the far right. Liberals just cannot handle a Black conservative.

This, my friends, is (also) what racism looks like in America today.

Let a Black man speak for the GOP; let him defend conservative values that were once considered mainstream; let him challenge the current orthodoxy of systemic racism that pegs whites as oppressors — and he will feel the wrath of those for whom, as Scott said, belief in racism is essential to political power.

The trouble among people who seem to see racism everywhere is that Scott neither sees nor dwells in a Black-and-White world. Life for Scott hasn’t been easy. As he said Wednesday, he has experienced the insults to his dignity that other minorities recognize as part and parcel of life in America. He’s been followed in stores, he said, and pulled over for no reason while driving.

As a child growing up in South Carolina, Scott was often angry in school, he said, and nearly failed. That he didn’t is a credit to his single mother, who “has prayed me through some really tough times,” and his grandparents with whom, he, his mother and his brother lived. He spoke of seeing his grandfather read the morning paper each day, only to learn much later that his grandfather couldn’t read but was trying to set an example.

In other words, Scott’s is the kind of story Americans have always admired — the overcoming of adversity to become what he could not have imagined as a child.

So, what’s wrong with Tim Scott? Not one thing except that he’s a conservative — and Black. A child could easily recognize the unfairness of such an assessment. Anyone can see that judging Scott by his skin color is the essence of racism. The fact that Republicans admire him does not and should not diminish his accomplishments.

Scott’s response to Biden was respectful while also being tough on policies that at other times in our history might have brought a broad segment of Americans to their feet in protest. Yet, we’re supposed to sit back and nod at the prospect of $4 trillion in new spending. Shut the door.

Massive new government programs are often tempting, especially when it comes to things such as infrastructure. Everyone knows that improvements to roads, bridges and waterways are critical. Everyone wants all children to be well-fed and well-educated. But who pays for free preschool and free community college? Who pays for medical and family leave? Who picks up the higher cost of goods and services when corporations are set to be taxed at higher rates? Even the very wealthiest Americans aren’t rich enough to cover Biden’s proposed spending spree.

In his rebuttal, Scott based his criticisms on core conservative principles by which he was raised. Yes, of course, Republicans are gratified when a conservative African American comes along because there are so few. But there’s no justification for conflating appreciation with White manipulation or the dubious “reward” of responding to the president in prime time, a practice that often ruins a political future.

As Scott said, “It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination.”

Thus, the more apt question is: What’s wrong with progressives?

An array of debates awaits us. We should have them. But let every person speak without threat of reprisal on the basis of race — slammed as un-woke, guilty of “White grievance,” or a traitor to one’s race. Those who diminish Scott under the racist rubric that a Black man can’t be a conservative for his own good reasons diminish themselves — all of us, really. Worse, they impede the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unifying goal that we judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. Nice work.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.