Tim Scott is 2024's only Black Republican candidate, and he wants America to focus less on race

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is the only Black candidate vying for the GOP's presidential nomination and while he has talked openly about race in America -- sometimes seizing the moment to challenge his competitors -- his messaging on the issue hasn't often separated him from the other candidates in the field.

Since he's launched his bid for the White House, Scott, like his Republican rivals, has leaned into 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 climb," he said in his campaign launch speech, in May.

"When I cut your taxes, they called me a prop. When I re-funded the police, they called me a token. When I pushed back on President Biden, they even called me the N-word," he said. "I disrupt their narrative. I threaten their control. The truth of my life disrupts their lies!"

In October, Scott deviated from usual stops in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to visit a Black church on the South Side of Chicago.

"There is a radical movement on the far left, and the more progress that America makes on race, the more some leaders want to deny it," Scott told the congregants of New Beginnings Church. "Our country has made, however, tremendous strides since then on the issue of race -- but lawlessness and fatherlessness and joblessness have gotten worse in the last 60 years and not better."

His speech in Chicago was intended, in part, to clarify controversial remarks he made at the second Republican Primary debate in September. Scott drew criticism then after he appeared to suggest that President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" federal welfare program in the '60s had been more difficult for Black Americans than slavery.

Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who is Black, called Scott's debate comments a "load of crock."

His more than an hourlong speech at New Beginnings Church also called out Democratic leadership in Chicago for, in his view, failing the Black community. Many of those elected officials are Black.

"If everything can be based and blamed on systemic racism, the problems can't be the liberals' fault," Scott told the audience. "They want us to sit down, shut up and don't forget to vote as long as we're voting blue. Instead of solutions, we are offered distractions and division."

Afterward, attendees were eager to pepper Scott, who rarely addresses Black audiences on the campaign trail, with tough questions. Many of the exchanges were tense.

MORE: How Tim Scott's run for president is affecting his role as senator
PHOTO: Sen. Tim Scott and Attorney Rodrick Wimberly at New Beginnings Church in Chicago, Illinois
Sen. Tim Scott and Attorney Rodrick Wimberly at New Beginnings Church in Chicago, Illinois
ABC News
Attorney Rodrick Wimberly said he came to the church with his wife, Evelyn, "out of respect" for what Scott has accomplished. When it was his turn to speak with the South Carolina senator, Wimberly challenged Scott.

"I've seen both in the debate and also in statements you've made where you indicated that you don't feel that there's systematic racism," he said. "There is statistical data to show, or suggest at the very least, that there is some issue where it's systemic."

Scott told him, "I'm saying that there is racism, but it's not the system."

The pair went back and forth on education, redlining -- referring to discrimination in financial loans -- and inequities in wealth before Scott was ushered away by his staff.

After the conversation, Wimberly told ABC News he came that day open to voting for Scott, but after their interaction he and his wife wouldn't cast a ballot for him "at this time."

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The disconnect illustrates a challenge Scott, and more broadly the Republican Party, has in making significant inroads with Black voters. In the last presidential election, 87% of Black voters backed Democrat Joe Biden, according to ABC News' exit polling.

Nadia Brown, a political scientist and professor at Georgetown University argued that Scott's messaging on race is most likely not directed at Black voters at all.

Instead, the senator, who has struggled so far to gain traction in the polls, is pitching himself as a non-white candidate who agrees with the issues that motivates the GOP base, Brown said.

The vast majority of Republican primary voters (92%) were white in 2020, the last presidential election year, according to a 538 analysis.

"What Tim Scott and those of his ilk are doing, they're trying to play on these emotional push pins that most African Americans don't see. It's not landing for them," Brown said. "I think that is a call out to other conservatives, particularly white conservatives, who want to say, 'I have a Black senator,' or, 'I feel comfortable voting for a Black candidate.'"

In rare moments, Scott has cited his race to break from others in the Republican primary field.

In July, he criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting a change to the state's standards that directed educators to teach middle school students enslaved people "developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

Scott suggested to reporters that DeSantis should rethink his position. "What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating," he said.

(DeSantis has defended the standards, telling ABC News' Linsey Davis in September: "It was not saying that slavery benefited. It was saying that these folks were resourceful.")

Though the audience for his Chicago speech was predominantly Black, the crowds at Scott's typical campaign stops are overwhelmingly white. At those events, Scott often declares that he will "speak like a pastor," in the famous tradition of Black clergy.

Leah Wright Rigueur, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Loneliness of the Black Republican," analyzed how Scott presents himself in the primary field.

"Because Tim Scott doesn't have certain markers of what the Republican base wants in a candidate, he's not white and he's not married, he plays up on other things: He plays up certain tropes about Black people and he leans into this kind of religious identity that I think really brings out a comfort for white audiences," Wright Rigueur said.

"[Scott] has to talk about race, but he has to do it in a way that doesn't alienate the main players in the party, and that's extremely hard to do given that the standard line on race in the party right now is that 'we don't have a problem and in fact it's other people who are the real racists,'" Wright Rigueur told ABC News.

In response to Scott's speech at the 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 kowtow to an extremist right wing group, and he ought to be ashamed of himself."

When criticized for his stance on race, Scott responds with an oft-repeated refrain placing the blame on the political left for, he argues, trying to silence another 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 quite obvious what America's past has been, but there's nobody alive today that could sit up and say, 'Well, I didn't develop into my full potential because I wasn't given an opportunity,'" said Raynard Jackson, a Republican political consultant, who is Black. "I think [Scott] hit all the right notes in the right key."

William Oden, chairman of the Sumter, South Carolina, Republican Party, who is also Black, voted for Scott in his Senate bid and loves Scott's "optimistic message."

"His message dispels the rumor that people talk about our country being racist," Oden said.

Although Scott had told ABC News that his team discussed giving his Chicago church speech "for a very long time," he delivered it amid signs that his campaign is faltering.

A super PAC supporting Scott announced it would pull fall ads from TV and he's still polling in the single digits nationally as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to 538's average. He only just managed to qualify for the third Republican primary debate, set for Wednesday.

Before Scott's Chicago speech, his team held a call to announce a plan to shift resources from New Hampshire and increase staffing in Iowa so that they were equipped to go "all in." Campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper also joined him in the city, in a rare appearance to signal what the campaign saw as a major moment.

DeCasper is the only Black woman at the helm of a Republican presidential campaign this cycle and some point to the diversity within Scott's staff as an illustration of his commitment to communities of color.

"Tim doesn't just believe in diversity. He is diverse," said Jackson, the consultant. "If you go to his office, it's nothing but the definition of diversity, and it's not forced or contrived diversity. That's just who he is."

Wright Riguer, the history professor, said that DeCasper is an important reflection of how Scott is approaching the issue.

"Given that there was a Black woman who is essentially guiding his larger political future, that is really important for how he is thinking and talking 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 emblematic of how he will continue to address the topic of race in a party that de-emphasizes identity.

"I don't want to be the Black conservative. I don't want to be the Black southerner," he said in late October. "I want to be Tim Scott, who happens to be Black."

Monday, November 6, 2023 at 4:43PM by Averi Harper and Gabriella Abdul-Hakim, ABC News Permalink