Nikki Haley kicked off her White House bid last week with a prevailing message that essentially boiled down to: “Racism is over. Just look at me for proof."
It’s a claim not entirely different from the message Barack Obama put forth in his 2008 presidential bid, which framed his candidacy as an indicator of racial progress. But even Obama had the wherewithal to acknowledge America’s racist history was not entirely behind us.
Haley, on the other hand, has played up her South Asian heritage (her parents emigrated from India before she was born) in order to downplay the reality of racism in America. And her messaging has been predictably muddled.
For example, her campaign announcement video spoke of her upbringing as an Indian American in South Carolina during a time when she says her hometown was racially segregated. She said her mother told her as a child not to see the differences in others, so ... racism's over, I guess? (Of course it's not.)
Haley might be surprised to discover that segregation — albeit, de facto segregation — largely still exists in South Carolina. That includes her hometown.
Nonetheless, the former South Carolina governor doubled down on the racial apologism during a campaign stop last week, when she criticized President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their acknowledgment that systemic racism exists in America, and that it’s rooted in the nation’s racist history.
"Joe and Kamala even say America's racist," Haley claimed at a campaign rally in Charleston, pulling lines from her campaign ad. "Nothing is further from the truth. ... Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history: America is not racist."
But her being the first nonwhite woman elected governor isn't proof of racism’s futility; it’s arguably proof of its vitality.
Surely, qualified women of color existed in the United States — and South Carolina, specifically — long before Haley was alive. Their inability to become governor speaks largely to the institutional barriers placed before them.
Haley, who reportedly identified as "white" on her voter registration card in 2001, doesn’t appear to understand she speaks from a position of privilege as an American with South Asian descent who can easily traverse the boundaries of race. (To that point, I recommend reading this 2020 NBC News report about Haley’s “on-and-off relationship” with her Indian identity).
Simply put, the former governor would benefit from a history lesson. Ironically, she and conservatives like her oppose truthful teachings of America’s racist history. That history includes many Americans of South Asian descent benefiting from white racists’ particular derision for Black Americans.
As Arun Venugopal wrote for The Atlantic in his 2021 article, "The Truth Behind Indian American Exceptionalism":
The nature of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. was always different from that of racism directed at Black Americans, which was much older than the nation. In sheer numerical terms, the Asian and Pacific Islander population was small—in 1940, it was one‑50th the size of the Black population. African Americans would fight for decades more to end legal segregation and secure voting rights, even as doors were thrown open for Asians.
Haley has bought wholly into the model minority myth, and today, it seemingly undergirds her beliefs in American exceptionalism. In her 2019 memoir, “With All Due Respect,” she claimed Indian Americans have experienced unique success compared to other minority groups mostly because “we’re just good at being Americans. And that says as much about America as it does about us.”
But America’s history of racism is much more complex than Nikki Haley acknowledges. And it’s a history that arguably benefited her and her family in ways she’s yet to realize (or admit).