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Haley ignores truth about slavery and the politics of race, color and caste

Roger House

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s failure to identify slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War has created a firestorm. But the press is missing an important issue when reporting on the brouhaha — how the inclination of some Republicans to avoid recognizing facts of racial history can foster a subtle messaging of “colorism” in our politics.

Haley, for example, likes to speak of “freedom” and “rights” in the American experience, but neglects to include that they were once exclusive to white people. As such, she tends to overlook the experiences of the millions of Africans held in bondage — and how their labor and bodies made America an economic powerhouse.

In regard to the Civil War, her omission of slavery distorts the history of the state she governed, South Carolina, which proclaimed that slavery and its preservation was the central reason for its secession. In 1860, South Carolina leaders cited “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery” to justify secession. Other states of the Confederacy offered similar reasons for leaving the Union.

Haley’s reluctance to cite slavery as a primary cause of the war goes beyond political opportunism, however. It also creates a rationale for people to minimize the effects of racism today. And it can reinforce efforts to stigmatize the legitimate concerns of Black Americans in the eyes of voters.

Moreover, it can sanction the introduction of a politics of caste hierarchy by race and ethnicity — which is to say, a politics that implies Black Americans are somehow deficient in their understanding of America’s racial history in comparison to immigrants of color.

The mischaracterization of the effects of slavery and racism can promote social dynamics of color and caste common to India and countries with colonial histories. According to the Pew Research Center, the caste system of India is “a social hierarchy passed down through families, and it can dictate the professions a person can work in as well as aspects of their social lives, including whom they can marry …. [N]early all Indians today identify with a caste, regardless of their religion.”

Of course, the bias of color hierarchy has been known within the Black American community as well. But people have struggled mightily to understand the roots of its origins in slavery and its power in social status and opportunities today. This is a society where media portrayals of fair-skin standards of beauty and power are pervasive.

Nikki Haley, born to parents from Punjab, India, is no doubt familiar with the baggage of caste in the treatment of servants in the Indian immigrant community. In California, for example, the evidence of caste discrimination was cause for a bill to ban the practice. While the bill was vetoed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, it did shed light on how the mindset of caste is being brought to the U.S.

Supporters of Haley are quick to note that she was instrumental in the removal of the Confederate flag as governor of South Carolina. But it took the tragic murder of nine people by a white supremacist at Emanuel AME Church — and a national outcry — to push her to do the right thing. Moreover, after dealing with such a horrific act of racial violence, one would think she would be more upfront about the implications of slavery in America today.

Haley is not alone among Republican politicians of color willing to downplay the racial saga of Black Americans; a number of prominent politicians of Indian background have followed the playbook. Such efforts to diminish the realities of racism faced by Black people can be heard in the statements of GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, born in Ohio to immigrants of the Brahmin upper class.

There is little recourse to politicians willing to neglect or minimize the effects of America’s racial history. But there is a way to better prepare voters to respond to the appeals to a caste culture. As immigrant communities of color expand, Black American political leaders and their allies should be prepared to confront the challenge of color and caste politics.

Roger House is an author and associate professor of American Studies at Emerson College.