Opinion | I Know What Nikki Haley Has Gone Through. That’s Why Her Rhetoric on Race Infuriates Me.


lede bailey

Or as Haley put it during the 2020 Republican National Convention: “America is not a racist country. This is personal for me. I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small Southern town. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a brown girl in a Black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate.”

My Black parents never gave into grievance or hate either. Most Black people haven’t, despite what our families have endured for generations. I would have had no chance at success had they given in, or had I. And yet, it feels to me as though Haley expertly tells her story in a way to diminish and dismiss people like me, those who refuse to pretend the anger we sometimes feel at the obvious racism around us isn’t justified.

I know the power of Haley’s story, know of the pain she speaks when recounting what happened to her father when she was a young girl. Her father committed a cardinal sin in the Bible Belt Deep South: buying produce at a fruit stand while brown and wearing a turban. He was Sikh, the turban a part of his faith. Someone called the cops, who stood watch as he purchased his items. Haley has told the story in many ways over the years, including in her memoir. And it’s the incident Haley used when she pushed legislators in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, even though she had done nothing until then to get it removed.

“I remember how bad that felt,” Haley has said about the fruit stand incident. “And my dad went to the register, shook their hands, said ‘Thank you,’ paid for his things and not a word was said going home. I knew what had just happened. That produce stand is still there and every time I drive by it, I still feel that pain. I realized that that Confederate flag was the same pain that so many people were feeling.”

Haley’s father had to swallow their bigotry, and even thank them for it, while handing them his hard-earned dollars. That’s what was expected when white men demanded stoic subservience. In that same era, my father had to quietly endure insults even from white children who would slur him knowing their skin color would protect them.

I know such incidents leave an indelible mark on your psyche, on your soul. You never grow out of it, especially if, like Haley, you and your family faced racial and religious discrimination in numerous ways. Her parents, immigrants from India, initially had trouble finding housing in Bamberg because of Jim Crow laws and social norms. Haley was removed from the Little Miss Bamberg beauty pageant as a 5-year-old because the insidious race-based system did not make space for someone like her, not white but not Black either. She wanted to be a pilgrim in a school play but had to portray Pocahontas instead. (“Did they realize that I wasn’t that kind of Indian?” she would later say.) 

She endured racism as an adult when in 2010 she was vying to become the first woman and person of color to become South Carolina’s governor. State Sen. Jake Knotts, a Republican like Haley but an ally of one of her opponents, slurred her as a “raghead.” (He applied the term to then-President Barack Obama as well.) The Lexington County Republican Party censured him and told him to resign. Instead, he gave a half-hearted apology “for an unintended slur” but proclaimed that Haley was “pretending to be someone she is not, much as Obama did.”

Growing up in the circumstances Haley and I did, you realize quite early you will be pressured to make a certain number of compromises and sacrifices to become successful in white people’s eyes. You may cry in private but present a stiff upper lip in public. That might mean swallowing hard, like Haley’s parents did and my parents did, to accommodate the white people in your orbit. And sometimes that meant unintentionally buying into their delusions, or having the good sense and good “God bless your heart” Southern manners to not shatter their myths. We were taught by history teachers in our public schools from books written by Confederate apologists and descendants. We learned that enslaved people were happy and that enslavers treated them like family members, and that the Confederate flag was “a symbol of respect, integrity and duty” and “a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state.” Those were Haley’s words. But she has also said the opposite, reminding audiences the flag was also seen by some as “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.”

In an interview with “The Palmetto Patriots” during her first run for governor in 2010, Haley defended states’ right to secede and said the Confederate flag was not racist and its location was a “compromise of all people, that everybody should accept.” She was referring to the general assembly’s decision in 2000, under pressure from a boycott by the NAACP, to remove the flag from atop the statehouse and place it in front of the building. As part of the “compromise,” the legislature also initiated plans for the construction of an African American monument to be installed at the state Capitol and established an official Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday to go along with a Confederate Memorial Day. That “compromise” was what counted for racial progress in South Carolina. In exchange for the privilege of having the flag of traitors relocated — but continuing to fly on Capitol grounds — Black citizens had to accept a state holiday dedicated to the traitors who wanted us to be enslaved forever.

At the same time, Haley made history by appointing Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate, making him the first Black man from the Deep South to serve in that chamber since Reconstruction. And she signed into law a bill that began to correct for decades-deep inequalities suffered by school districts like the ones she and I attended.

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( With inputs from : www.politico.com )

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