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Tim Scott’s unwavering optimism about racism in America

The Republican presidential candidate is betting that a hopeful message will break through in 2024.

Sen. Scott, a Black man wearing a blue Oxford shirt, speaks into a handheld microphone in front of a large American flag backdrop.
Sen. Tim Scott announces his presidential campaign at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Allison Joyce/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the US Senate, has made his view that America is not a racist country central to his pitch for the presidency, and on Monday, even went on The View to debate the idea.

Scott’s stance on race is a central part of a strategy that differentiates him from his fellow presidential hopefuls, one centered on an optimistic vision rather than on the country’s political and cultural divides. The question is whether Scott’s optimism can break through what is already proving to be an ugly primary, with former President Donald Trump lobbing insults at his biggest rivals and some of his once-closest allies going on the attack.

Scott, a senator for South Carolina, is currently at the back of the pack: He’s polling at under 2 percentage points on average, behind even right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy, who has never held elected office. But that hasn’t stopped Scott from staying on message.

Monday, Scott told The View hosts that they had wrongfully advanced the notion “that the only way for a young African American kid to be successful in this country is to be the exception and not the rule,” adding, “That’s a dangerous, offensive, disgusting message to send.” And when pressed to acknowledge that Republican policies have hurt Black Americans, he said that “Both sides of the aisle can do a better job on the issue of race.”

Scott has long pushed back against the concept of systemic racism — that racism is deeply embedded throughout society and its institutions in a way that disadvantages people of color — despite mountains of evidence to prove its existence. While he’s said he’s been subject to racial discrimination at times, including at the hands of police, he maintains that racism occurs at the individual level. More than 40 percent of Americans agree with him, according to a November 2022 survey by US News and World Report and the Harris Poll.

His decision to put those views front and center in his campaign, however, is not so much aimed at running on a message about race, but about unity, said Dave Wilson, a conservative strategist based in South Carolina.

“Some people are looking for a firebrand who’s going to be fighting. Others are looking for an optimistic viewpoint of America that we have been lacking for the last almost two decades of national politics,” he said. ”Right now, [Scott] is trying to pitch to America that we need to find our commonalities instead of focusing on our differences.”

Does Scott’s pitch give him a path to the presidency?

Scott has presented himself as living proof of the progress that America has made in allowing anyone to prosper, regardless of race or background. On the campaign trail, he describes how he came from a poor, single-parent household and went on to become the first Black senator from the South since Reconstruction: “I know America is a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. I know it because I’ve lived it,” he said in an April video launching a committee to explore a potential 2024 run.

That message hasn’t seemed to resonate with voters, at least not as of yet. Scott is among multiple candidates polling in the single digits and fighting in narrow lanes for a place on the Republican ticket. But it’s too early to write him off entirely, especially given that he has proven to be a prolific fundraiser and he’s well-liked compared to other Republican presidential hopefuls, said Chip Felkel, a GOP strategist based in South Carolina. He has a net favorability rating of +7 percentage points, compared to Trump’s -1 rating, according to a May Harvard CAPS/Harris poll.

“If he has the money to stay viable till he gets to South Carolina, maybe there’s been enough carnage and enough people have not made the cut by then that he could actually make a dent,” he said. “The question is, can he convince people of his viability on a national stage? He’s doing the right things, but I think he’s got to catch lightning in a bottle.”

Going on The View and addressing his critics head-on in a public forum is an example of Scott “doing the right things,” strategists told Vox, given that he’ll need to earn the respect of GOP voters to move up in the polls.

“Conservatives like people who are willing to go into the lion’s den and make the case for their positions,” said Felkel. “His willingness to go there and have that dialogue is what I think we’re missing.”

Even if Scott doesn’t win the nomination, he would be in contention for vice president, Wilson said, and performances like his segment on The View are likely to help his supporters make a case for him in that role.

“There are a lot of people right now who are vying for the vice presidency,” Wilson said. “I think Tim Scott brings optimism to the race. He also brings a level of experience. No matter which spot he would be on the ticket, it would be a strong ticket for Republicans.”

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