Speaking on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday, hours after her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was finalized, former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was asked to respond to comments made by MSNBC host Joy Reid on Monday night: Was the Republican Party racist?
“No, we’re not,” Haley replied. “We’re not a racist country. We’ve never been a racist country.” She did not address the actual question, instead adding that the United States wasn’t perfect and that she had experienced racism. But her goal, she said, was to “lift up everybody, not go and divide people on race or gender or party or anything else.”
Intentionally or not, Haley in those quotes succinctly summarized the often surreal race politics of the GOP.
We can start with the claim that the United States has “never been” a racist country, a claim that no serious person could defend.
Black people in the United States used to be enslaved, you’ll recall. The first three censuses measured the size of the White population and the number of enslaved people — in large part to accommodate the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise, boosting the power of slave states by allowing them to count five enslaved people as three people. There was also a category for non-White free people, but by 1820, non-enslaved Black people were counted separately.
Black Americans got the right to vote only after the Civil War, a conflict driven by the dispute over slavery. In many Southern states, though, that freedom was constrained for decades by laws intended to limit how many Black people could vote. That sat alongside other constraints, such as segregated schools and facilities.
More time passed between the 1877 Hall v. DeCuir decision, allowing segregation, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act than has elapsed between the Civil Rights Act and today. Jim Crow lasted longer than the post-Jim Crow era has.
Of course, racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act. The civil rights movement was very effective at convincing Americans that overt racism — segregation, burning crosses, Klan hoods — were unacceptable. But the belief held by many White Americans that Black people were less intelligent or more criminal simply manifested in other forms, including systems that quietly separated them out or targeted them.
About a decade ago, the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to disparities in how law enforcement treats Black Americans, an effort that expanded awareness of systemic racism. The biennial General Social Survey, a national poll, shows a big increase in the percentage of Americans who attributed the lower economic position of Black Americans to anti-Black discrimination.
There was no real increase among Republicans. Instead, a plurality of Republicans in 2022 said the economic differences were because Black Americans “don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty” — a statement about an innate quality that reflects a racist belief. (It is perhaps an improvement over the once-popular response in the GSS that the differences were because Black Americans “have less inborn ability to learn.”)
This brings us to the first part of Haley’s comment, that the United States is not currently a racist country. This was not rhetoric she was unveiling for the first time on Fox News this morning. She used the line when speaking at the Republican convention in 2020 when Trump was being renominated by his party. She posted it to Twitter at the time, too.
America is Not a racist country. pic.twitter.com/mYe0wW6QBa
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) August 25, 2020
That’s because, by 2020, the focus on systemic racism had triggered a backlash on the right. It predated the protests that unfolded that summer, but those protests made the pushback more salient. Trump was seeking reelection and used the protests as a foil, a way to present (as in Haley’s tweet) the Democrats as overly extreme in their assessments of race in America. The left’s focus on racism prompted the right to highlight the idea that considering how Americans deal with race is inherently negative and unpatriotic — if not somehow a deliberate left-wing effort to weaken the country.
Is America racist? There are certainly racists in America, and there are unquestionably manifestations of racism in systems. (One good example is that employers are less likely to consider applications from people with names associated with Black Americans.) Beyond that, the question doesn’t matter much. It is intentionally framed in a way that allows Haley and other Republicans to deflect debate onto friendlier terrain.
Notice that Haley — who, as governor of South Carolina, removed the Confederate flag from outside the state Capitol after a white supremacist killed nine Black people in a Charleston church — makes these claims in the context of electoral politics. This is also why she declined to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War when asked at a campaign event; for a Republican presidential candidate, using the question to attack the federal government rather than historical racism is the smart play. Republicans, after all, are more likely to see discrimination against Whites than against Black Americans. (White Americans do not face more racism than Black Americans.) That Haley herself is not White increases her utility as a messenger.
Her line on Fox that she sought to avoid “divid[ing] people on race or gender or party,” meanwhile, reflects the common belief on the right that the only reason issues of racial or gender parity are raised by the left is so that they can be used as a partisan cudgel. That the Republican Party is so heavily White has made it easy for this idea to take root, with the effect of prompting Republicans to seek out examples in which the left or Black Americans purportedly contrive examples of racism.
The Iowa caucuses took place on the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The holiday is a celebration of King’s life and of the success of the civil rights movement in combating overt discrimination in American society.
In recent years, Republicans have often latched onto King’s famous quote about judging people not on the color of their skin but the content of their character, as though this was an endorsement of ignoring differences based on race. But of course, King’s speech (and his life more broadly) made very clear that his point was not that colorblindness should be the default approach but that he dreamed of a day when it could be.
When King was alive, it’s worth noting, he was far less popular than he is today — thanks to hostility from White Americans.