Nikki Haley, Racism In America, And Trump
On racism, Republicans, and names
Former Governor Nikki Haley, one of the three remaining Republican Presidential hopefuls, has sparked a lot of conversation with recent comments about the topic of racism and America. During an interview with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, Haley proclaimed that we have “never been a racist country.”
Haley’s remarks were in response to MSNBC host Joy Reid’s comments on whether Haley could win the GOP nomination as a woman of color. Haley suggested Reid “lives in a different America than I do,” pointing to her own rise from the daughter of immigrants to governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations.
“I mean, yes, I’m a brown girl that grew up in a small rural town in South Carolina who became the first female minority governor in history, who became an UN ambassador and who is now running for president. If that’s not the American dream, I don’t know what is,” she said, a day after she came in third in the Iowa Republican caucuses. “You can sit there and give me all the reasons why you think I can’t do this. I will continue to defy everybody on why we can do this. And we will get it done.”
When asked by host Brian Kilmeade if the GOP is a racist party, Haley made a broader point that the US has “never been a racist country.”
“We’re not a racist country, Brian. We’ve never been a racist country,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure that today is better than yesterday. Are we perfect? No. But our goal is to always make sure we try and be more perfect every day that we can.”https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/16/politics/nikki-haley-says-us-not-racist-country/index.html
Reporters and pundits have pointed out that this seems in conflict with Haley’s past accounts of the racism that she faced throughout her life. However, those accusations miss that Haley directly addressed this issue in her statements on Fox:
“I know I faced racism when I was growing up. But I can tell you, today is a lot better than it was then. Our goal is to lift up everybody. Not go and divide people on race or gender or party or anything else. We’ve had enough of that in America,” she added.https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/16/politics/nikki-haley-says-us-not-racist-country/index.html
Let’s leave aside the ahistorical nature of this argument. Our history of institutionalized race-based chattel slavery, not to mention the extended national toleration of segregation and Jim Crow laws, prove that our history has been bound up with racism.
Then again, as we know, it took days of pushback on Haley for her to be able to say that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War. At the time, the theory for why Haley attempted to dodge the question was due to discomfort among the Republican base to talk about the topic of race. Her comments on Fox seemed designed to address this.
After that appearance, her campaign offered the following further clarification of Haley’s point:
“America has always had racism, but America has never been a racist country,” a campaign spokesman said. “The liberal media always fails to get that distinction. It can throw a fit, but that doesn’t change Nikki’s belief that America is special because its people are always striving to do better and live up to our founding ideals of freedom and equality.”https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/16/politics/nikki-haley-says-us-not-racist-country/index.html
Across all of these and past comments, Haley puts the focus on individual racism versus systemic racism. America could not be racist because that would require systemic racism (the enshrinement and reproduction of racism via laws and other social institutions). This is a very similar position to the one that Tim Scott adopted. Yes, he has been stopped countless times for driving while Black, but that doesn’t mean that policing has a racism problem.1 More broadly, it’s also in keeping with overall Right Wing and Republican ideas about racism as something individuals are versus institutions.
Even accepting this formulation, it still doesn’t address individual leanings among conservatives towards racism. There have been a few examples since Haley’s statement that demonstrate the challenges Republican people of color face in trying to appeal to their base. Take the alleged conservative “humor” site the Babylon Bee’s recent “joke” about Vivek Ramaswamy being offered a position to run the Donald Trump “White House 7-Eleven.” That follows on the heels of an interview where a caucus voter said they couldn’t vote for Ramaswamy because they’re “not being prejudiced, guys, but I don’t like his name. I don’t like where he came from. After 9/11, I still harbor a lot of hard feelings.“
This discussion is, of course, nothing new. Arguably, it can be traced back to the ascendency of the Lily-white movement at the turn of the 20th century and was advanced by noted Black Republicans such as Jackie Robinson in the 1960s as the party began integrating Southern segregationists.2 It can also be seen in examples like Bobby Jindal and Haley adopting “American” sounding names in political life.
Ok, so for those of us used to online political discussions, this is where all of our conservative, Right Wing, and Republican readers get ready to comment:
Ummm, ackchyually Matt, Nikki is her middle name! It’s Nimarata Nikki Randhawa Haley. Why can’t she be like Mitt Romney and use her middle name? After all some White Democrats do too (readers help, I know they are out there but I don’t have time to do the Googling for an example)! Clearly you’re the real racist here Matt for suggesting she is doing this to appeal to White Republican votes. Real Republicans don’t see color.[Soruce: So many social media exchanges on this topic.]
Hold on to your hats folks… I totally agree with the proposition that people should be able to use whatever name they prefer. We should respect those wishes (in the same way we should use the pronouns people tell us to use). Shocker, I know.
I also agree that focusing on anyone’s name to stoke racial othering fears is bad and bigoted. That said, I also wonder what those (strawmen) Conservative commentators will have to say about Former President Trump’s most recent “truths” and what they say about his conception of the Republican base:
Not only does Trump decide to refer to Haley by her first, far more ethnic name, but, get this, with “Nimbra” he is either misspelling it out of ignorance or trying to make a joke out of it. Of course, for all of us who lived through the “Barak HUSSEIN Obama” years, this isn’t a particularly new strategy for the former President. Neither is “ReTruthing” articles suggesting that Haley should be disqualified over birth-right citizenship issues (I’m old enough to remember when Republicans didn’t think people should be administratively prevented from being on ballots… wasn’t that like a month ago or so?).
Granted, politics isn’t mumbly-peg and sharp elbows will always be thrown. But at some point, it’s worth asking why is the defacto incumbent Republican Presidential candidate and frontrunner resorting to racist appeals if that isn’t what they think an important part of the Republican base wants to hear.3
- At one point, Tim Scott was working on advancing police reform to address racial tensions. That valuable work ended up DOA and Scott spent a lot of time avoiding discussing it on the campaign trail during his short-lived candidacy for President in 2023. ↩︎
- I know that there is a narrative that a higher percentage of Republicans voted for the major civil rights bills than Democrats. And this is true. It’s also only telling part of the story. For example, with the 1964 Civil Rights act, Republicans and Democrats from the South (defined as members of Congress from the eleven states that made up the Confederate States of America) overwhelmingly voted against the Legislation. In fact, Southern Republicans voted against the measure at a higher rate than Southern Democrats. Also, when you control for the South, Democrats voted for the measure at a higher rate than Republicans. This shouldn’t read as either party being bad or good, but rather the regional nature of open political opposition to Civil Rights (which we often use as a proxy for racism correctly or incorrectly). ↩︎
- And before our commenters respond with, “But the Democrats have racism problems too,” of course, that’s true. Joe Biden once made a 7-11 joke in 2006! And it was dated humor 16 years ago too. And a lot of time has passed since then, including a cultural reevaluation of those stereotypes. ↩︎