Tim Scott is the only black Republican candidate for 2024, and he wants America to focus less on race
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is the only Black candidate vying for the Republican presidential nomination, and while he has spoken publicly about race in America — sometimes seizing the opportunity to challenge his rivals — his messaging on the issue has often not divided him. Of other candidates in this field.
Since launching his bid for the White House, Scott, like his Republican rivals, has leaned on his belief that America is “not a racist country” and his opposition to so-called “critical race theory” and other views that emphasize identity.
“Joe Biden and the radical left are attacking every rung of the ladder that helped me ascend,” he said in his campaign launch speech in May.
“When I cut taxes, they called me a prop. When I refunded the police, they called me a symbol. When I opposed President Biden, they called me the N-word,” he said. “I’m disrupting their narrative. I threaten their control. The truth of my life disrupts their lies!”
In October, Scott deviated from his usual stops in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to visit a black church on Chicago’s South Side.
“There is a radical movement on the far left, and the more progress America makes on race, the more some leaders will want to deny it,” Scott told New Beginnings Church congregations. “However, our country has made tremendous strides since then on the issue of race — but the lawlessness, lawlessness, unemployment, and underemployment have gotten worse in the past 60 years, not better.”
His speech in Chicago was intended, in part, to clarify controversial statements he made in the second Republican primary debate in September. Scott drew criticism after he appeared to suggest that President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” federal welfare program in the 1960s was more difficult for black Americans than slavery.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is black, called Scott’s comments “a load of crock.”
His speech, which lasted more than an hour at New Beginnings Church, also criticized Chicago’s Democratic leadership for, in his view, failing the black community. Many of these elected officials are black.
“If everything can be based on systemic racism, then the problems can’t be liberals’ fault,” Scott told the audience. “They want us to sit down, shut up and not forget to vote as long as we vote blue. Instead of solutions, we are offered distraction and division.”
Afterward, attendees were eager to ask Scott, who rarely addresses black audiences on the campaign trail, tough questions. Many of the exchanges were tense.
Attorney Roderick Wimberly said he came to the church with his wife, Evelyn, “out of respect” for what Scott had accomplished. When it was his turn to speak with the South Carolina senator, Wimberly challenged Scott.
“I saw in the discussion as well as in the statements you made, where you indicated that you did not feel there was systemic racism,” he said. “There is statistical data that shows, or at least indicates, that there is a problem where it is systemic.”
Scott said to him: “I say there is racism, but this is not the system.”
The duo went back and forth regarding education, redlining — a reference to loan discrimination — and wealth inequality before Scott was fired by his staff.
After the conversation, Wimberly told ABC News that he came in that day open to voting for Scott, but after their interaction, he and his wife had not cast a vote for him “at this time.”
This disconnect illustrates the challenge that Scott, and the Republican Party more broadly, faces in making significant inroads with black voters. In the last presidential election, 87% of black voters supported Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to an ABC News exit poll.
Nadia Brown, a political scientist and professor at Georgetown University, said Scott’s messages about race likely aren’t directed at black voters at all.
Instead, the senator, who has so far struggled to gain support in the polls, is positioning himself as a nonwhite candidate who agrees with the issues that motivate the GOP base, Brown said.
The vast majority of Republican primary voters (92%) were white in 2020, the most recent presidential election year, according to a 538 analysis.
“What Tim Scott and people like him do is they try to play on these emotional pins that most African Americans don’t see. And that doesn’t work for them,” Brown said. “I think this is an appeal to other conservatives, especially white conservatives, who want to say, ‘I have a black senator,’ or ‘I feel comfortable voting for a black candidate.’”
In rare moments, Scott cited his race to separate himself from others in the Republican primary field.
In July, he criticized Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for supporting a change in state standards that directed teachers to teach enslaved people middle school students “sophisticated skills that, in some cases, could be applied to their own advantage.”
Scott suggested to reporters that DeSantis should rethink his position. He added: “The real issue of slavery was the separation of families, the mutilation of people, and even the rape of their wives. It was devastating.”
(DeSantis defended the standards, telling ABC News’ Linsey Davis in September: “It wasn’t that slavery benefited. He was saying that these people were resourceful.”)
Although the audience for his speech in Chicago was mostly black, the crowds at Scott’s typical campaign stops were overwhelmingly white. On those occasions, Scott often announced that he would “speak like a priest,” in the popular tradition of black clergy.
Leah Wright Reagor, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of Black Republican Unity, analyzed how Scott presented himself in the primary arena.
“Because Tim Scott doesn’t have certain markers of what the Republican base wants in a candidate, and he’s not white and he’s not married, he’s playing on other things: he’s playing on certain tropes about black people and leaning into that kind of propaganda.” “The religious identity that I think provides comfort to white audiences,” Wright-Reagor said.
“[Scott] He has to talk about race, but he has to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate key players in the party, and that’s very difficult given that the standard line on race in the party now is “we don’t do that.” “I don’t have a problem, and in fact other people are the real racists,” Wright Reagor told ABC News.
In response to Scott’s speech at a Chicago church, Rep. Jonathan Jackson, D-Ill., who is black and represents part of the city in Congress, told ABC News: “He’s trying to capitulate and submit to a far-right group, and he should be ashamed of himself.”
When Scott is criticized for his stance on race, he repeatedly responds by blaming the political left because, he says, it is trying to silence another point of view.
“I’ve been called a prop, a token, the N-word, and more ugly names than I can share,” Scott said in a recent fundraising appeal.
Other black conservatives agree with Scott’s sentiments.
“It’s pretty clear what America’s past was like, but there’s no one alive today who can sit down and say, ‘Well, I didn’t develop to my full potential because I wasn’t given the opportunity,'” said Raynard Jackson, a US entrepreneur. A Republican political consultant, who is black. “I suspect [Scott] Hit all the right notes in the right key.”
William Oden, chairman of the Republican Party in Sumter, South Carolina, who is also black, voted for Scott in his Senate bid and likes Scott’s “upbeat message.”
“His message dispels the rumors that people are talking about our country being racist,” Oden said.
Although Scott told ABC News that his team had discussed giving his speech at the Chicago church “for a very long time,” he delivered it amid signs that his campaign was faltering.
The super PAC backing Scott announced it would pull fall ads from television and he is still polling in the single digits nationally as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. According to the average of 538. He just managed to qualify for the third Republican primary debate, scheduled for Wednesday.
Before Scott’s speech in Chicago, his team held a phone call to announce a plan to shift resources from New Hampshire and increase staffing in Iowa so they would be equipped to go “all the way.” Campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper also joined him in town, making a rare appearance to mark what the campaign saw as a major moment.
DeCasper is the only Black woman leading a Republican presidential campaign this cycle and some point to the diversity within Scott’s staff as evidence of his commitment to communities of color.
“Tim doesn’t just believe in diversity. He’s diverse,” said Jackson, the consultant. “If you go into his office, this is just the definition of diversity, and it’s not forced or contrived diversity. That’s just what it is.”
DeCasper is an important reflection of how Scott handled the case, said Wright Regier, a history professor.
“Given that he has a Black woman essentially directing his larger political future, this is really important for how he thinks and talks about race right now,” she said.
Scott’s campaign declined to comment for this article.
His recent remarks at the University of Mississippi are perhaps most symbolic of how he will continue to address race in a party that deemphasizes identity.
“I don’t want to be the black conservative,” he said in late October. “I don’t want to be the black Southerner.” “I want to be Tim Scott, who happens to be black.”
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com