Haley says America has never been 'racist.' Her own family history says otherwise.

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Nikki Haley can’t seem to tackle questions on race. The former South Carolina governor and current presidential candidate paid a visit to "Fox & Friends" on Tuesday, after a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. In an interview, host Brian Kilmeade pulled up a video of Joy Reid’s CNN commentary from the night before that focused on race.

“Elephant in the room? She’s still a brown lady that’s got to try to win in a party that is deeply anti-immigrant,” Reid said.

Kilmeade asked Haley whether she agrees with this interpretation, to which she replied with her track record – being the first woman of color elected to governorship in the country (technically, she’s the second by a matter of days) and becoming a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations after growing up in rural South Carolina.

Then, Kilmeade asked Haley outright: “Are you a racist party? Are you involved in a racist party?”

“No,” Haley said. “We’re not a racist country, Brian. We’ve never been a racist country.”

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who's also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, campaigns on Jan. 15, 2024, in Pella, Iowa, before the caucuses.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who's also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, campaigns on Jan. 15, 2024, in Pella, Iowa, before the caucuses.

Nikki Haley contradicts her own family history

It’s a shocking statement, considering the candidate’s December blunder where she failed to mention slavery as one of the causes of the Civil War during a town hall in New Hampshire.

She attempted to later walk the comments back, and say that she was focusing on "what it means to us today," but the damage was done.

Haley even appears to contradict herself in her interview with Kilmeade. After saying the United States isn't a racist country, she says she dealt with racism growing up in South Carolina.

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She has shared some of her experiences before, like the story of someone calling the police on her father, a Sikh man who wore a turban as part of his faith, while they were shopping at a produce stand. A country that has "never" been racist would not produce situations like that at any point in time – and it's the sort of thing that continues to happen in the 21st century.

Her statement is demonstrably false. Our country was built on land that belonged to Indigenous people, using the labor of enslaved people to grow its economy. It is a country that imprisoned Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, solely based on their ethnic background.

We have continued to grapple with racism from the Civil Rights Movement to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In short, there is a mountain of evidence contradicting Haley’s statement that we’ve “never been a racist country.”

Yet this is the belief system that has been standard in Republican strongholds for years. In the past few years, Republicans in multiple states have pushed to change the curriculum to remove “divisive” topics from public schools. The right believes that the United States is the greatest country in the world and refuses to hear any evidence to the contrary.

Many people of color would beg to differ.

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Haley needs Republican votes. Many Republican voters don't want to talk about race.

At the same time, it makes sense that Haley would say this, especially after Reid’s comments. She doesn’t want to alienate the Republican voting base, which has been overwhelmingly white and over 50 years old in the past three national elections.

Republicans polled by YouGov in July were more likely to say that white people face racism in comparison with other races. They were less likely than other respondents to say racism against Black Americans is a problem.

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Haley is already at a disadvantage for the reasons Reid brought up. Many people will see her as too liberal – despite her status as a Republican and the policies she supports – just based on her lived experience. She caught flak from fellow candidate Ron DeSantis for saying that Hillary Clinton's words motivated her to enter politics.

She doesn't want to alienate the party's core voters, but the unfortunate reality is that some people will always see her as too "different" to be a viable presidential candidate.

Then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley testifies at her confirmation hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017. Behind her, from left, are her son and husband, Nalin and Michael Haley, and her father, Ajit Singh Randhawa.
Then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley testifies at her confirmation hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017. Behind her, from left, are her son and husband, Nalin and Michael Haley, and her father, Ajit Singh Randhawa.

The GOP is not equipped to have meaningful discussions on race when this is its primary voting bloc, especially while the party is still under Donald Trump’s thumb.

Many of these voters likely do not want to talk about their complicity in continuing racism – it isn't a pleasant topic. They do not want to talk about the rise in hate crimes since Trump's 2015 campaign, or his anti-immigrant rhetoric that has led to treating migrants as less than human. They do not want to talk about the anti-Asian hate speech that arose because of Trump labeling COVID-19 as "the Chinese virus."

All of this would require them to unpack their fear of people who don't look like them.

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In the Fox interview, Haley said, “I can tell you today is a lot better than it was then,” referring to her own experience with racism in the 20th century.

This may be true, and I empathize with her – I’m sure that growing up in South Carolina as an Indian American was difficult. But racism has not magically disappeared since then, and it is naive of her to make that assumption.

“Our goal is to lift up everybody, not go and divide people on race or gender or party or anything else,” she continued. “We've had enough of that in America.”

I understand her inclination to highlight progress and emphasize equality. I understand her reluctance to criticize the voters she is seeking to win over. But to say that the United States has “never been a racist country” only serves to bury its history, and makes her look naive once again ahead of the primaries.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Sara Pequeño on X, formerly Twitter, @sara__pequeno and Facebook facebook.com/PequenoWrites

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haley says US has never been 'racist.' Did she forget her own past?