As a Black man, Leon Winn recalls growing up during a period when Black Americans were historically regarded as second-class citizens.
A product of the Jim Crow South, Winn, one of 12 kids, compared his life to a “roller coaster,” recounting personal encounters with blatant racism coupled with details about his father abandoning his mother, leaving their family financially strained during an already challenging era for Black people.
Now, at 67, Winn is an active member of the South Carolina Republican Party, a relatively rare Black representative of the GOP, looking for a presidential candidate who mirrors his conservative values, especially those concerning faith and racial equality.
He’s just not sure, yet, if Tim Scott is that candidate.
For Winn, like many Black Americans, Scott’s stance on systemic racism — namely, that it doesn’t exist in modern America — is a stumbling block. Scott, a Black man and South Carolina’s junior senator on Capitol Hill, has maintained that his life’s story is indicative of an America that’s moved beyond racism.
“I believe America can do for anyone what she’s done for me,” Scott told a panel of co-hosts on “The View” in July. “Restoring hope, creating opportunities and defending and protecting the America that we love is such an important combination.”
While Scott has generally been well-regarded among South Carolinians, some Black Republicans, such as Winn, refuse to subscribe to the senator’s notion that systemic racism no longer exists in America.
“Racism still exists in America. I see it all the time,” Winn said.
As Scott works to expand his appeal to Black voters in his 2024 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he’s been widely criticized for his “cotton to Congress” spiel, which argues, in essence, that his life experiences are evidence that racial discrimination has largely evaporated in America. Notwithstanding his chances for a win in the general election, questions have already begun to swirl as to whether Scott can muster enough support among Black Republicans to even emerge victorious in the primary, which so far includes more than a dozen contenders.
Although Scott may now be at odds with some Black GOP voters, some stand firmly in his corner. Whether their support will be enough to lift Scott above the fray come February, however, remains to be seen.
A lack of Black voters in the GOP
As a Republican candidate, Scott’s chances of wooing a large number of Black voters in South Carolina are slim considering that only 7% of Black South Carolinians identify as or lean toward the Republican Party, compared to 59% of white voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
Presidential candidates, seeking to amp up their chances to secure the “Black vote,” historically have courted voters at Black churches ahead of primary elections. But Scott appears to lack such an opportunity, as the vast majority of Black congregations in the Palmetto State tend to support Democrats.
Winn, who pastors Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, a mid-sized congregation in Manning, said he’s an ally of Gov. Henry McMaster and acknowledged that while racial discrimination continues to exist, it’s not as “blatant” in South Carolina as it once was during his childhood. But he emphasized that among his Black Republican colleagues and friends, none side with Scott on his position on racism.
Earlier this summer, shortly following his official 2024 presidential campaign launch, Scott appeared on ABC’s “The View” to, in part, defend his view on the opportunities he says Black people have in America, despite pervading notions of racism and white supremacy.
But Scott’s position on what it means to be the “exception” versus the “rule” was at odds with at least two of the five women co-hosts, who are Black, on the national television talk show.
“You’re the first Black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction ... about 114 years,” said co-host Sunny Hostin. “Yet, you say that your life disproves the leftist lie, and my question to you is, I’m the exception, right? You’re the exception, maybe Ms. Whoopi Goldberg is the exception, but we are not the rule.”
Even before the start of his presidential campaign, Scott frequently touted the challenges and obstacles he’s had to overcome as a Black man, often recounting life experiences involving being raised with limited financial resources by a single mother and memories of his grandfather picking cotton after being forced out of elementary school.
His grandfather “suffered the indignity of being forced out of school as a third-grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write,” Scott said in 2020 at the Republican National Convention. “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.”
But Scott’s sort of rags-to-riches story isn’t enough to move Winn, though Winn admits that Scott has made “some inroads” for Black Americans.
“His background doesn’t touch mine as far as coming up hard,” Winn said. “My dad took his money and took care of another woman, and we were left hungry without food. I came from an era of segregation and integration. (Scott) doesn’t know anything about that.”
Scott’s campaign did not respond to specific questions about the senator’s stance on racial progress. Instead, the campaign pointed to instances where Scott spoke about race on the campaign trail, his voting record, events he has specifically held at Black churches and his efforts to introduce inclusion acts in the Senate.
The campaign touted Scott’s efforts to encourage investment in low-income opportunity zones across the country, his legislative work to secure funding for historically Black colleges and universities, his support of school choice, and his efforts to pass finance-oriented legislation that the campaign said has benefited people of color.
In looking at the issue more from a micro than a macro perspective, Kizzie Smalls, a Black Republican who serves as the second vice chair for minority outreach for the South Carolina Republican Party, says “individual” and not “systemic” racism is the problem in America today.
“There’s nothing wrong with the system, but there may be some people who may be running certain systems that have issues,” Smalls said. “I can say in my life, I have not experienced (systemic racism), but I’ve actually talked to some folks that say they still feel oppressed. And I’m like, they got a big beautiful home, they’ve been to college, they’ve retired from the military and on a second job, and I’m like, wow, so it all depends on the person.”
Scott leads among Black GOP presidential candidates
So far, Scott is the leading Black candidate in the 2024 presidential race, followed by conservative radio host Larry Elder, who’s considered a longshot in the crowded field that’s led, by far, by former President Donald Trump.
If Scott prevails in winning the Republican nomination — currently, he’s polling around 3% nationally — he will undoubtedly face an uphill battle in wooing the broader Black electorate ahead of the general election, as more than 80% of Black registered voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party nationally, according to Pew.
“He’s trying to talk about race, but he’s not talking about it in a way that actually makes sense,” said Christale Spain, chair of the S.C. Democratic Party. “Black voters are much more nuanced in voting for a Black candidate, just because they’re a Black candidate. So they need more than him just being Black.”
Spain emphasized how important the Black vote is, especially in South Carolina. Most Black voters identify as Democratic, so Scott isn’t appealing to them as is. But even for voters who are in the middle, his racial progress speech is in contradiction to what Black voters need, Spain said.
“I mean, they care about jobs in the economy, they care about access to health care, and keeping their communities safe, access to wealth, they care about all those things,” Spain said. “Tim Scott is not really concerned with those things, as it relates to Black voters. Some of the things that he has done already as a U.S. senator don’t support the interests of Black voters when it comes to the economy and access to wealth.”
With Scott’s uphill journey just beginning, some suggest that his position on race will be futile in attracting a majority-white Republican base, anyway. Rather, his ability to showcase genuine conservative values will do more to generate voter support.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics newsletter, said Republicans generally assume and suggest that systemic racism remains in the past and that it’s time to move on from historical instances of racial injustice. There’s a theory called “just world,” he explained, that relates to how Republicans view race in America, where even Republicans who have experienced racism or inequality ignore the effects and suggest the nation has moved past it.
Rhetorically, Scott doesn’t sound all that different compared to his GOP competitors, Kondik said. While he isn’t as “fire and brimstone” on the topic as Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Scott has spoken a great deal about race in the U.S. While his tone may be slightly individualized, he is still very much in line with what the other party candidates say about race.
Though he suggests that systemic racism is in the past, Scott has made it clear at times that he has a boundary when it comes to talking about racial issues. That boundary became apparent in late July at a town hall event in Iowa. When asked about his GOP rival DeSantis’ new Black history standards in Florida schools that suggest slavery was “beneficial,” Scott said there was “no silver lining in slavery.”
“What slavery was really about (was) separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives,” Scott said.
While Scott vehemently defends his views on the campaign, some question whether all of his statements reflect what he truly believes or are just efforts to to gain political traction.
“I do think that the party likes to highlight the diversity that it has, because, frankly, Democrats accused Republicans of being racist all the time,” Kondik said. “I don’t think that being a non-white candidate is a hindrance in the Republican Party, so long as you are conservative on issues, including race generally.”
A disconnect between Scott and younger Black voters
At least anecdotally, some younger Black voters, albeit curious, appear to have little to no connection to Scott, unlike former president Barack Obama who famously ignited a movement, attracting a record number of Black (and young) voters to the polls in 2008 and 2012. Even during the Democratic primary, Black voters showed up in support of the Illinois Democrat in unprecedented numbers.
As a younger Black voter and entrepreneur, Donnie Patterson doesn’t identify as Democrat or Republican, but he said a candidate who works to ensure that all Americans have a fair shake in securing American opportunity would be his candidate of choice for president. But in light of Scott’s position on the lack of Black oppression in the U.S., Patterson, so far, isn’t a supporter.
Patterson, a 36-year-old Tennessee native now living in Spartanburg, attended a small round-table discussion Scott had with business leaders on promoting manufacturing jobs earlier this month in Duncan. Patterson was one of only two Black voters in the audience.
“There are still traces of (systemic racism) because certain programs have created lasting negative effects against Blacks Americans,” Patterson said. “It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which program because it’s a combination of various programs, and we need a candidate that’s going to help rectify those gaps and not further exacerbate them.”
Jay Jenkins, 53, a Black Republican and South Carolina native, was the only other Black voter at Scott’s round-table event. He said though he appreciates the obstacles Scott may have overcome growing up Black in America, he believes progress toward racial equality throughout the country remains lacking.
“I truly believe this is the greatest country in the world, and if you work hard and do the right things, there’s opportunity in America,” Jenkins said. “With that being said, speaking as a Black male, there are a lot of things we need to get right with race relations in this country.”
Although Jenkins identifies as a Republican, as a “free thinker” he says he’ll support a candidate from either the Democratic or Republican Party if he feels that candidate has a willingness to fight for people who have been historically marginalized, such as Black Americans.
But he’s unsure if Scott is that candidate.
“I really like Nikki Haley,” Jenkins said. “I think she’s said some really great things and was a great governor for the state of South Carolina. But I want to hear more of what Tim has to say because I think we’re at pivotal point in this country’s history, and where we go from here will largely dictate our country’s future, regarding race relations and other social issues.”
Still, Scott has managed to procure support among some Black GOP voters and leaders, who say Scott’s story does, in fact, show that racism in America is a thing of the past.
“The thought that this is a systemically racist country is false, and the people who are saying otherwise are all people who have large amounts of money,” said Sumter County GOP Party chair, William Oden, a longtime Black South Carolina Republican. “Of course we will encounter some folks who will look at us and try to tell us (as Black people) that we can’t do anything because of the color our skin. We just have to ignore that.”
Other Black Republicans appear indifferent to Scott’s position on race relations, including state Sen. Mike Reichenbach, R-Florence, the only Black Republican lawmaker in the General Assembly.
Reichenbach wouldn’t say directly whether he believes systemic racism exists and works against Black Americans. He described, though, his experience of being born to a single mother who was just 14 years old. He was adopted by a stable family, who he says helped to nurture him into the man he’s become today, despite racial inequality.
“Like Sen. Scott, I believe my story is further proof that God provides,” Reichenbach said.