Why Black South Carolinians are furious at Nikki Haley

By Brandon Tensley, Capital B

The 19th

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Kym Smith is passionate about a wide range of causes, from pushing for South Carolina public schools to include Black history in their curricula to bringing adequate health care to Black communities.

But rarely, if ever, does Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley grapple with issues of deep-seated racial inequality, explained Smith, a 36-year-old mother and organizer. Instead, the former governor of the Palmetto State uses her background as the daughter of Indian immigrants to sweep aside these concerns, as she did on a recent episode of the radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

“I don’t think America’s racist. I think we have racism in America,” Haley told co-host Charlamagne tha God. She added that, growing up as a member of the “only Indian family” in the small South Carolina town of Bamberg, she faced discrimination as a girl, but she managed to survive. To her, racism is always about individual actions, and never about whether U.S. society is designed to disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities.

This ought to be a time when Haley is making appeals to Black South Carolinians. After all, the state has what’s called an “open primary” system: As long as you didn’t vote in the Democratic nominating contest on February 3, you can vote in the Republican one on Saturday. But rather than try to win over Black South Carolinians who have soured on President Joe Biden but aren’t willing to back former President Donald Trump, Haley is infuriating many of these voters.

“When I hear tone-deaf statements like that, I think about how delusional people in power are, and also how they’re just so calculating,” Smith told Capital B. “Haley thought that going on The Breakfast Club would help her reach younger listeners, in particular younger Black listeners. She thought that she could make vague statements and sway the vote. She wanted to sound deep, but she just sounded ridiculous.”

Haley’s claims about racism aren’t surprising, at least not to Black South Carolinians.

For years, she embraced the Confederate flag as an icon of Southern heritage and resilience, ignoring the fact that the Confederacy was an antidemocratic state devoted to racial subjugation. Only after a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 did Haley, who at the time was governor, remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. She later insisted that its meaning had been “hijacked.”

“Haley often gets credit for taking down the flag, but people, especially Black people, had been asking her to take it down for a while,” 35-year-old Kenya Cummings, the executive director of the South Carolina Housing Justice Network, a Charleston-based grassroots organization that focuses on tenants’ rights, told Capital B. “She dismissed them until there was a tragedy.”

Cummings has spent time watching Haley’s press interviews. They said that they’re struck that she isn’t really addressing the issues plaguing her home state. These issues include the assault on Black political representation — a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding a major voting rights case out of the state is expected soon — and residents’ struggle to secure basic necessities.

“Haley has a really strong stance on protecting ‘the unborn,’ but South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has rejected federal food aid for children this summer. Where’s that conversation?” Cummings asked.

They also noted Haley’s ongoing pride in having blocked the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act when she was in the governor’s mansion from 2011 to 2017 (she framed the expansion as a “federal takeover” in a 2011 email). This is even though South Carolina — like other former Jim Crow states — continues to rank near the bottom when it comes to access to health care and life expectancy, and most people in non-expansion states support expanding Medicaid programs.

“The state that gave Haley the political power she has is South Carolina. But she’s not paying attention to us. We are languishing,” Cummings said.

“It’s political theater”

Haley, in some ways, has a personal story that could appeal to a variety of voters, including Black voters. The only problem is that there isn’t an audience for it in the Republican primary, which is overwhelmingly White.

More specifically, she has an American narrative that partly mirrors the one that former President Barack Obama has elevated: My parents aren’t from here. This is the only country where my story is possible. My family was discriminated against, but through tenacity and hard work, we succeeded. And then I became the first Indian American governor of South Carolina.

That narrative resonates across political lines. But in order for it to be a genuine come-up story, explained Theodore R. Johnson, a senior adviser at the think tank New America and a scholar of race in politics, South Carolinians have to be racist — something the GOP can’t abide.

“Haley’s story is remarkable only if all of society’s weight is organized against her and she succeeds anyway,” he told Capital B. “But if the U.S. isn’t a racist nation, then she was just a smart girl who worked hard and became governor. And that’s the story of every woman who’s become governor. So she has this remarkable story that she can’t tell in a way that would attract most Americans, because it’d probably repulse Republican primary voters.”

Rather than lean into that narrative, then, Haley does what she did on “The Breakfast Club”: She admits that racism can be an individual problem, but she doesn’t indict the U.S. as a whole. She concedes that the country at times falls short, but she returns to the conviction that it isn’t beyond saving.

On the same episode, Haley accused Obama — not Trump or the Tea Party — of “separating Americans instead of bringing them together.” Her logic: Obama spoke plainly about the scourge of racial inequality, and attacking him for this is more likely to strike a chord with her target audience.

“The country needs to retain a certain level of purity,” Johnson said. “And the way she toes that line is by making racism only a personal defect and therefore inapplicable to the country’s nature or how it operates. With Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the same thing. He’ll brag about going from ‘cotton to Congress,’ but the U.S. isn’t racist. I guess there were just lots of racist overseers and slave owners, but it wasn’t the state that did it.”

The result is campaign messaging that keeps Black voters at a distance — and that does nothing to repair the image of a party associated with racist behavior and rhetoric.

Haley, said Smith, has political influence, but she’s using it to pander to the white power structure, not to take any kind of principled stance.

She’s a politician first and foremost, one who puts her finger to the wind and catches as much momentum as she can. This fact is what allows her to declare one moment that Trump shouldn’t be president and then say the next that she’ll pardon him if he’s convicted of a federal crime.

“It’s political theater,” Smith said. “And it might be comical if all of this wasn’t going on at the expense of the poor and dispossessed.”


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