Tim Scott seldom specifically brings up race in Iowa. Nor does the Republican presidential candidate have to.
He is often the only Black person at his campaign events in the state. The South Carolina senator introduces himself as the product of early-life mentors who taught him not to be bitter.
When race comes up, he often says the United States is not fundamentally racist.
“We don’t have Black poverty or white poverty. We have poverty,” he told an all-white audience Thursday in Oskaloosa after being asked about race. He earlier had spoken about his poor Southern upbringing and his late grandfather, born into Jim Crow-era South Carolina.
“The brilliance of this nation is that we keep moving forward, even though there are lots of forces who want us to think the problem is that someone doesn’t look like you,” Scott said.
Scott, the only Black GOP presidential candidate campaigning aggressively in the early-voting state, is betting that his upbeat message of personal responsibility, wrapped in the Christian faith he comfortably cites, is a good fit for Iowa Republicans who might split from former President Donald Trump. So far, Scott and others in the White House race remain far behind Trump, and the senator did not achieve a breakout moment during the first GOP presidential debate.
Scott has been criticized by scholars who say his rejection of systemic racism, especially in light of the recent racist killings in Florida, plays down larger social and political obstacles facing African Americans.
But dozens of Iowa Republicans interviewed over the past several months say his position, common in the 2024 GOP field, resonates more coming from Scott than from others.
“It definitely means more from him,” said Mary Rozenboom, a 77-year-old retired hospital employee from Oskaloosa who is white. “He’s saying, ‘This is me. I’m Black. But I succeeded because I worked hard, and those opportunities remain in America.’”
Recent polls suggest Scott’s support in the state hovering around 1 in 10 among likely participants in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, still four months away.
That is significantly behind Trump and slightly behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Still, it suggests Scott’s position in Iowa is slightly stronger than it is nationally, where his support in most recent polls hovers in the low single digits.
Scott may have unique advantages among Republican voters on race issues, according to political experts, even if his argument may be out of step with more diverse voters or in a general election.
Among voters for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, just 18% said racism is a very serious problem in U.S. society, compared with 61% of voters for Democratic candidates, according to AP VoteCast data.
“He’s a Black man who rejects the idea of systemic racism, which is very popular in Republican circles,” said Christine Matthews, a national political pollster who has worked for Republican candidates. “It absolutely resonates more.”
But Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Scott is deliberately trying to appeal to voters who want to believe that racism is not a serious problem.
“He’s glossing it over and saying he’s achieved all these things because he’s taken advantage of every opportunity and worked hard,” Williams said. “It creates this kind of powerful, yet flawed, narrative that it’s grievance politics on the left that are solely responsible for economic inequality, for continued police brutality, for housing inequality.”
“But it buys him points with that GOP base that says, ‘Finally, someone who sounds like me who is a Black person which proves I’m not racist,’” he said.
Scott argues that racism is one of many forms of hatred that exist in the U.S. and that American society has improved over time.
He was asked to comment this summer on the accusation by Joy Behar, a host of the ABC talk show “The View,” that he failed to understand systemic racism.
“I said America is not a racist country,” he said. “Because it’s not.”
He achieved his political rise in South Carolina, once the cradle of the Confederacy. As in Iowa, the Republican primary vote there is vastly white.
When he won a seat in the U.S. House in 2010, Scott became the first Black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina since the 1890s, during an era when white Democrats ousted many Republican officeholders after Reconstruction and disenfranchised Black people through state-sponsored violence, including lynching.
Scott won the House primary by beating Paul Thurmond, the son of longtime South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist who fought against civil rights legislation. Scott was later appointed to the U.S. Senate and has been reelected twice to six-year terms.
“I think it is important that, in the history of eternity, that I had the good fortune of being born in the place where the Civil War started, being elected in the seat that Strom Thurmond used to hold, to be in a position to have this serious conversation that confronts racial outcomes in this nation,” he told The Associated Press in 2020.
Bonnie Boyle, upon leaving a June event, compared Scott to the late former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Black figures popular among Republicans.
“I don’t think I’m prejudiced, but I know a lot of people who are, and I don’t think the color of your skin should matter,” said Boyle, who is white. “Tim Scott says you can rise above the perception that you’re stuck, and you can make it, and I like that a lot.”
Most of the Republican presidential candidates deny the U.S. faces systemic racism. And the study of race in American society has animated core Republican audiences. Several Republican-controlled states have invoked critical race theory in legislation restricting how race can be taught in public schools. GOP lawmakers in some states have also tried to outlaw or defund diversity and equity programs intended to address disparities in racial representation.
Scott was a key spokesman for the party and involved in legislation in Congress aimed at reducing police violence after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police in May 2020.
The senator seldom mentions that legislative work in Iowa. The legislation would have, among other measures, established a commission to study race and law enforcement. Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a compromise package and legislative efforts fell apart.
Already in this campaign, Scott has faced unique expectations to respond when Florida issued new state education guidelines on slavery. DeSantis repeatedly defended the guidelines, which require teachers to instruct students that enslaved people learned skills “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating,” Scott told reporters in Iowa. “So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that.”
Scott’s success has not come by ignoring America’s legacy of slavery and segregation, said Stephen Gilchrist, a Black man who is a Republican and chairman and CEO of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce.
“He tries to live up to the creed of Dr. Martin Luther King, where we shouldn’t be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,” said Gilchrist, who has not endorsed a candidate for 2024. “He’s inspired many of us who are African American Republicans.”
But Frederick Gooding Jr., an African American studies professor at Texas Christian University, said untold more Black Americans have worked just as hard as Scott but struggled against invisible barriers.
“He did work hard,” he said. “But it’s not quite that simplistic.”