Along with most of my South Asian friends, I greeted the news of Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign this week with a combination of laughter, sadness and pity. After all, Haley is polling at an abysmal 4%, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone actually believes she has a realistic chance to dethrone Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis to grab the MAGA crown.
If you ascribe to the foolishness that people of color are ruled solely by “identity politics” and race, then I should be rallying and rooting for Haley purely out of South Asian solidarity. After all, she was the first woman of color to become governor of a historically segregated South Carolina, and the first Indian American in a presidential Cabinet.
Yet, she’s also apparently “white,” according to reports on her voter registration card from 2001. What we do know from her career and recent presidential campaign announcement is that her political platform veers dangerously close to laundering the “model minority myth," in the process promoting harmful Republican policies that negatively affect communities of color.
The model minority myth has remained one of white supremacy’s most enduring and successful divide-and-conquer strategies. The educational and economic success of some Asian Americans has been used as a cudgel against Black people, in particular, who continue to be told by GOP politicians to stop blaming racism for their problems. Instead, they are commanded to work hard and pull themselves up by “their bootstraps,” even when they remain “bootless.” It’s a myth that gaslights Americans about systemic racism and our individual role in enabling and enforcing white supremacy.
According to a 2021 poll, a majority of Republicans believed that minorities are more favored than white people, as evidenced by the success of some people of color. Last year, a poll found nearly half of Republicans believed to some extent in the white supremacist "great replacement" conspiracy theory, which claims white Americans are being deliberately “replaced” by non-white immigrants.
As such, we no longer need “welfare” and “handouts,” such as affirmative action, food stamps and the child tax credit, all of which help lift communities of color out of generational poverty.
Haley should actually spend her campaign thanking and uplifting Black activists and protesters who are fighting for equality. After all, if it wasn’t for the civil rights movement, she wouldn’t be in America. The movement pressured Democrats to introduce the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which put an end to the national origins quota put in place in the 1920s to keep out the original “invaders,” which included Italians, Eastern European Jews and Asians.
As a result of that law, young educated Asian men, like my father and Haley’s father, had a chance to receive a Willy Wonka golden ticket to America and become successful.
Being a model minority, however, wasn’t enough to protect my father and Haley’s father from white supremacy. My father and his brother arrived in San Francisco in 1966 as students during the civil rights movement. They quickly replaced their shalwar kameez and kurtas with grotesque bell bottoms. They grew out their hair, listened to Jimi Hendrix, studied during the day, worked at night, saved up their money, and built a small community with other single South Asian men in their 20s. A few years later, in 1969, Ajit Singh Randhawa, a Sikh Indian immigrant, moved to segregated Bamberg, South Carolina with his wife and family to accept a teaching position at Voorhees College, a historically Black institution.
Our fathers were two immigrants of color trying to achieve their American dream at the same time in different states by working hard, gaining an education and avoiding trouble. But none of it mattered because they weren’t white. Haley has previously recounted how her father was racially profiled at a produce stand. An immigration officer once accosted my father for no reason and said, “You Arabs come here only to f--- our American girls,” and ordered him deported. (My father is Pakistani, but bigots aren’t really into nuance or details.)
Being a successful, well-educated Republican didn’t protect Haley either. In 2010, Jake Knotts, then a South Carolina state senator, said, “We already got one raghead in the White House, we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” (Former President Barack Obama is neither Muslim nor Arab, but again, bigots aren’t into details; Knotts later apologized for using "an unintended slur.") Politico reported that a major potential conservative donor once asked Haley to prove she wasn’t related to terrorists.
In light of all this, Haley still chooses to dismiss people of color’s legitimate anger against America’s enduring legacy of racism, instead siding with the party that believes in “Jewish space lasers” and banning books. She kicked off her presidential campaign event by declaring, “Take it from me, America is not a racist country,” which has since become a 2024 conservative rallying cry.
She said this despite serving and supporting a president who once described participants in a white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia as “very fine people” and who recently dined with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist.
Haley then invited pastor John Hagee to deliver the invocation prayer; some of his greatest hits include claiming the Holocaust was part of God’s plan and that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for LGBTQ rights. (After much outcry, he later apologized for his remarks.)
At the 2020 Republican National Convention, Haley explained how even though her parents faced discrimination and hardship, they “never gave into grievance and hate.” And yet in 2023, it looks like Haley is trying to use white grievance and hate to pave a lily-white road to the White House.
This cynical approach is evidenced in her three-minute presidential announcement video. Haley opens by declaring she is a “proud daughter of Indian immigrants” who grew up “different” in historically segregated Bamberg, South Carolina. Nonetheless, she was taught to look beyond differences and appreciate the “similarities” with people. Judging from her soundbites, such generosity only extends to white Republican voters. There’s also a quick montage of Haley meeting her diverse constituents, which includes every shade of white middle-aged and old Republican under the sun. Apparently, Black people, who make up 27% of South Carolina’s population, didn’t get an invite. Neither did her own family members.
Haley promises to be the face of a “new generation” of GOP leadership that can actually win the popular vote even though she continues parroting conservative policies that have consistently failed to win over the majority, such as tax cuts for the rich, being anti-abortion and supporting what critics have called DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” initiative in Florida. But Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, doubles down on the ace in the hole that still delivers for Republicans: racism.
Particularly disappointing, especially for many in the South Asian community, is that of all the Republicans with stature and clout, she had arguably the best opportunity to truly confront the GOP’s full-throated embrace of white supremacy. She just seems to have chosen not to.
In 2015, Haley called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the South Carolina State House. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said then, according to The New York Times. “It is, after all, a Capitol that belongs to all of us.”
Today, Haley’s presidential campaign suggests that she believes the U.S. Capitol and the United States only belong to a radicalized and weaponized GOP, controlled increasingly by aggrieved white Christian men and women.
But “model minority” or not, Haley probably doesn’t stand a chance.