With one answer in a TV interview, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley again ignited a campaign trail debate about racism and its role in America, putting the precarious politics of race front and center as the GOP nominating contests get underway.
Just a few weeks after Haley’s comments about whether the Civil War was caused by slavery stirred controversy and division within her party’s ranks, Haley told Fox News on Tuesday that America is “not a racist country” and has “never been a racist country.”
“Are we perfect? No,” she added. “But our goal is to always make sure we try and be more perfect every day that we can.”
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While Haley has acknowledged her experiences with racism growing up as a person of color, she — like other GOP presidential candidates this cycle — has doubled down on the belief that systemic racism does not exist in America, and that the nation is not racist. Haley has made similar comments for years, but the sentiments have taken on new life in a presidential election in which race seems to be at the center of many discussions on party politics.
The former U.N. ambassador’s response was sparked by a viral moment from MSNBC host Joy Reid, who on Monday said Haley is “still a Brown lady that’s got to try to win in a party that is deeply anti-immigrant. … I don’t see how she becomes the nominee of that party.”
In a Tuesday interview with Fox News, Haley said she and Reid must live in “different” Americas, and that although she faced racism as a “Brown girl that grew up in a small rural town in South Carolina,” she became “the first female minority governor in history, who became a U.N. ambassador and who is now running for president.”
“If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is,” Haley added. “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.”
Race has been a delicate issue for Haley, who began her campaign as the only woman in the GOP field and is now the only remaining person of color vying to represent a Republican Party that is still predominantly White. After a white supremacist killed nine people in 2015 at a historically Black church in Charleston, Haley — then South Carolina’s governor — signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds. But that came years after she resisted earlier efforts to remove the flag from the grounds.
“America has always had racism, but America has never been a racist country,” Haley’s campaign said in a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday evening.
It went on to say that despite media portrayals, it “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.”
The United States has long struggled with a history — and a foundation — of racism. The nation’s Indigenous populations were displaced and massacred by settlers, and much of the country’s economic foundation was built on the labor of enslaved Black people. Divisions over slavery sparked the nation’s Civil War, with slavery being abolished only after the Confederate Army — which espoused white-supremacist beliefs — was defeated.
The end of slavery, however, did not mean the end of racism against Black Americans. Jim Crow laws made segregation the rule of the land in the South. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s — including the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — that many of the Jim Crow laws were repealed and Black Americans began to experience some semblance of equality that is still, to this day, not ubiquitous.
At a CNN town hall Tuesday night, fellow Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis — who criticized Haley last month for making no mention of slavery when she was asked about the cause of the Civil War — did not take the fresh opportunity to attack at his rival. Instead, he echoed Haley’s sentiments, saying the United States is “not a racist country.”
“We’ve overcome things in our history,” he added.
As Florida governor, DeSantis has led intense efforts to de-emphasize racism in his state’s public school curriculum by, among other things, establishing new African American history standards that civil rights leaders and scholars say misrepresent centuries of U.S. reality. Earlier in the campaign, DeSantis drew criticism for arguing that some Black people benefited from being enslaved.
Further pressed during the CNN town hall, DeSantis said the country has “had challenges with how race was viewed.”
“And so, for example, those were universal principles in the Declaration of Independence,” he said, before referencing the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which found that Scott, a Black man, was not a U.S. citizen.
“That was wrong. That was discriminating on the basis of race,” DeSantis said. “That’s why you ended up having the 14th Amendment ratified to overturn Dred Scott.”
Peter Loge, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, noted that when confronted with the question of whether America is a racist country, politicians tend to argue that the nation continues to discover “who we want to be as a nation, who we aspire to be as a people.”
“There are racists who live here. A lot of our founding documents have racism baked in, like racism was … literally written into the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “But we can strive to be better as a nation.”
Loge noted that the spirit of a question like “Is America a racist country?” is not meant to result in a nuanced response, but rather an answer that will rally a political base.
“The point of the question was not to elicit a thoughtful answer,” he said. “Like, he could have said, ‘How do you think America is doing wrestling with its, confronting its, racist history? … [Or]: We just celebrated the memory of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. How do you think he would say we’re doing?”
Haley’s and DeSantis’s comments encapsulate the thin line that Republican candidates toe when talking about race on the campaign trail to a GOP base that has upheld former president Donald Trump — a figure who has espoused racist rhetoric, struggled to condemn white supremacists and who last month said immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” — as its front-runner.
Soon after Haley’s comments, Trump embarked on a tirade against his former U.N. ambassador, posting about her on his social media site Truth Social using her first name — which he misspelled — in an attack that appeared to be a racist dog whistle.
“Anyone listening to Nikki ‘Nimrada’ Haley’s wacked out speech last night, would think that she won the Iowa Primary,” Trump said. “She didn’t, and she couldn’t even beat a very flawed Ron DeSanctimonious, who’s out of money, and out of hope. Nikki came in a distant THIRD!”
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants who moved to the United States in the 1960s, was born Nimarata Nikki Randhawa. Her father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, is a professor of biology who got his PhD at the University of British Columbia and later moved to Bamberg, S.C., a segregated town where Haley was born, to teach at nearby Voorhees College — a historically Black university. Even before the campaign began, Haley repeatedly stated that she has always gone by her middle name, which is Punjabi for “little one,” and that she changed her last name to Haley after marrying her husband, Michael Haley.
Vivek Ramaswamy, who dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race earlier this week, had also publicly referred to Haley by her Indian maiden name. At the time, Haley told Fox News: “First of all, I was born with Nikki on my birth certificate. I was raised as Nikki. I married a Haley. And so that is what my name is, so he can say or misspell or do whatever he wants.”
A spokeswoman for Haley did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Trump’s attack.
This is not the first time Trump has used a rival’s name or background as a tool in his efforts to “other” them.
During the 2016 presidential race, Trump referred to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who was then a GOP presidential candidate, by his first name, Rafael. Trump also built favor with the extreme right of the Republican Party when, in 2011, he began floating racist and baseless claims about former president Barack Obama not being born in the United States, and he frequently emphasizes Obama’s middle name, Hussein.
Just three months ago, Trump blamed President Biden and “his boss, Barack Hussein Obama,” for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Loge said Trump is playing to voters who share a similar background as him. These voters, he said, are the people who say, “‘I want to know my president is somebody who gets me, who understands my frustrations, my anxieties … [who] kind of gets me.’” Loge argued that, by using Haley’s first name, Trump is sending his voters the message that “she’s not like us. She’s not one of us.”
The discussion also expanded beyond the GOP primary race.
Vice President Harris told ABC’s “The View” on Wednesday that while the history of racism in America shouldn’t be reduced to a sound bite, “racism has played a role in the history of our nation.”
“We all would agree that while it’s part of our past and we see vestiges of it today, we should also be committed, collectively, to not letting it define the future of our country. But we cannot get to progress on the issue of race by denying the existence of racism, by denying the history of racism,” she continued.
Three years ago, Harris made a slightly different assessment of the issue on “Good Morning America,” which echoed some of Haley’s sentiments.
“I don’t think America is a racist country, but we also do have to speak the truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today,” Harris said in 2021.