What Nikki Haley and Tim Scott are offering Republicans

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas in November. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker
Sen. Tim Scott on Feb. 9. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

A pair of 2024 presidential candidates from South Carolina – one who just entered the race and another who may soon – are demonstrating anew that race is at the heart of Republican politics. There’s a very particular story GOP voters want to hear about race, and these candidates will give it to them.

Start with Nikki Haley, former governor and Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, who is delivering her first campaign speech on Wednesday. In her announcement video, Haley talks about discrimination she faced as the daughter of Indian immigrants. “The railroad tracks divided the town by race,” she says.

But in Haley’s telling, racism is an echo of bygone times. “Some look at our past as evidence that America’s founding principles are bad,” she says as a reference to the 1619 Project appears on the screen. “Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Haley uses her credibility as a non-White figure to tell Republicans that racism is no longer much of a problem, says Stanford political scientist and native South Carolinian Hakeem Jefferson.

“The Republican Party is willing to give its members of color some leeway to talk about race and racism,” Jefferson told me, “but there’s only so far they can go.”

The key for Haley is that racism is a completed story: It happened then; now it’s over, and we can all feel good about where we’ve come. White Republicans tell this story, too: In her response to President Biden’s State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders talked about the Little Rock Nine and how proud she is “of the progress our country has made.”

As governor, Haley appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott to fill a vacant Senate seat, and now Scott is reportedly preparing his own presidential run. Scott similarly reassures conservatives about their own racial innocence even as, from time to time, he acknowledges the reality of racism he himself faces.

Scott gave a moving speech in 2016 in which he said he’d been pulled over by police seven times in one year, “for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood.” He told of other Black men, friends and relatives, who had been treated the same way. “Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops,” he said then.

But then there’s also the Tim Scott who echoes the right’s caricatures of critical race theory, saying in a speech, “Teaching kids that some are oppressors is just as bad as teaching other kids that they are always going to be victims,” and, in a Republican response to Biden’s first address to Congress, that “America is not a racist country.”

Scott’s message is that racism is not an institutional or systemic problem but an individual failing. That’s precisely what conservatives want to hear, so they can say, “Well I’m not a racist!” Which means we don’t have to do much of anything about racism, especially systemic racism, other than getting rid of what Scott calls “bad apples” if we happen to locate them.

Scott talks about getting pulled over, but he inevitably turns back to the story of racial progress. “It’s a way of talking about race that hardly offends the system to which these folks are so committed,” Jefferson says.

It isn’t just conservatives who are drawn to the mythology of racial progress, Jefferson says. “Many Americans across ideological lines tend to prefer and believe in” the idea that we’re always moving forward on race.

That’s what Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign offered liberals (and some conservatives): the opportunity to believe that a new and final racial reconciliation was possible. As a student at the University of South Carolina in 2008, Jefferson was at Obama’s victory party after the state’s primary where supporters chanted “Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!” – their hearts bursting with the promise of a post-racial America.

“It’s so enticing,” Jefferson says about the idea of inexorable racial progress, but “these moments are often met with backlash.” Like the one we’re in right now.

The Trumpist political project is built on that backlash, which could make candidates like Haley and Scott even more valuable to the Republican Party as living testaments to the GOP’s supposed commitment to racial equality. They seem committed to a version of history that sanitizes the past – not to mention the GOP’s racial politics – and makes us all participants in a tale of triumphant reconciliation.

Even as Republicans remove books on racism from libraries and limit classroom discussion of race in numerous states, they claim to be the true warriors for equality. It is the liberals, they say, who want us racially divided.

Haley and Scott are already happily making that argument.



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