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Nikki Haley has called out prejudice but rejected talk of systemic racism throughout her career

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Four years after South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from its Statehouse grounds, Nikki Haley offered two separate explanations of the flag's meaning in less than a week.

Haley, the state's governor when the flag was pulled in 2015 from its place of honor in Columbia, said in a 2019 interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck that the man who shot and killed eight Black churchgoers in Charleston — murders that were the impetus for the flag’s lowering — had “hijacked” a symbol that many people took to stand for “service and sacrifice and heritage.” Two days later, she wrote in the Washington Post, “Everyone knows the flag has always been a symbol of slavery, discrimination and hate for many people.”

The two messages capture Haley’s sometimes contradictory messages on race. Throughout her career, the South Carolina-born daughter of Indian immigrants has generally called out acts of individual prejudice and the people responsible. But Haley, now a Republican presidential candidate, has avoided denouncing society or groups of people as racist.

As the GOP primary race moves to South Carolina and its Feb. 24 contest, Haley is trying to cut into former President Donald Trump's advantage. He has repeatedly attacked adversaries throughout his career with racist language, trying to appeal to as many voters as possible without alienating conservatives who reject the idea that systemic racism exists in the United States.

But Haley's approach has drawn bipartisan criticism at times, particularly after a December town hall when Haley refused to say slavery had been a cause of the Civil War. She later walked back those remarks, saying that “of course the Civil War was about slavery.”

Haley was pushed for more answers on her feelings about race when she was interviewed Wednesday on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated hip hop morning radio show on which presidential candidates and other politicians have discussed issues of race.

Asked about the 2015 shooting at Charleston's Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Haley told co-host Charlamagne tha God that the national media “came in and wanted to define” the event and “wanted to make it about racism.” Haley acknowledged, after being pressed, that the killings were “motivated” by racism. Dylann Roof, a white man, was convicted and sentenced to death.

The Haley campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Haley and Trump are competing for votes both along South Carolina's rapidly growing coast with its booming aerospace and defense industries and in the rural swaths of a state where the Civil War began more than 150 years ago. Some in South Carolina still venerate the Confederate cause and play down the fact that Southern political leaders wanted to secede to keep slavery intact, as well as the lasting legacy of official federal and state discrimination against Black people.

Haley, who was Trump's U.N. ambassador, has described facing prejudice in her upbringing in rural Bamberg.

“My parents never wanted us to think we lived in a racist country,” Haley told reporters recently. “I don't want any brown, Black or other child thinking they live in a racist country. I want them to know they can do and be anything they want to be without anyone getting in the way.”

Hajar Yazdiha, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, argued that Haley was making a conscious choice to better appeal to conservatives.

“Nikki Haley will strategically deploy her identity in one moment and not the next. So in one moment, she’s drawing out that history,” Yazdiha said. “She’s really claiming her ethnic identity and using it to tell a compelling story about the American dream. And then on the other, she’s minimizing it and erasing it and acting like it has no bearing on who she is.”

At a recent Haley rally in North Charleston, Terry Holyfield said she applauded Haley’s push to bring down the Confederate flag. Holyfield said it was "the right thing to do at that time, and I applaud her for standing by her beliefs.”

About the cause of the Civil War, Holyfield said she stood by her preferred candidate’s answer.

“She answered that question intelligently and correctly,” Holyfield said. “Our government was different than it is now, and our Constitution was different, and she answered that question spot on.”

People of color seeking high office have long faced disproportionate pressure to talk about race, especially before white audiences.

During his own presidential bid last year, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian and the only Black Republican in the chamber, often talked to all-white groups in Iowa about personal responsibility and how “we don’t have Black poverty or white poverty. We have poverty.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who is Hindu, was often challenged by Christians in Iowa about whether they worshipped the same God. Both Scott and Ramaswamy have dropped from the nomination contest and endorsed Trump.

Haley sometimes ties her upbringing to politics, mentioning how her mother criticizes people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without permission because she herself immigrated legally. But Haley has also had to contend with attacks from Trump based on her ethnicity.

Trump called Haley “Nimbra” on his social media site in a recent post. That was an apparent intentional misspelling of part of her birth name, Nimarata Nikki Randhawa. Haley has used her middle name, “Nikki,” since childhood.

Trump also has promoted false conspiracy theories about whether Haley was eligible to run for president because she is the U.S.-born daughter of immigrants. Her birth in South Carolina makes her a natural-born citizen, one of three qualifications to hold the U.S. presidency. Trump's promotion of this false claim echoes his “birther” rhetoric about Barack Obama, the nation's first Black president.

When asked by reporters whether Trump's criticisms of her are racist, Haley has instead portrayed him as “desperate to stop our momentum," using any means necessary to attack his opponents.

“That’s what he does when he feels threatened. That’s what he does when he feels insecure,” Haley said during a town hall on CNN when asked about Trump’s false allegation that she was ineligible to be president. “I know that I am a threat. I know that’s why he’s doing that.”

She often uses her own story as an example that the U.S. is fundamentally good.

“We live in the best country in the world and we are a work in progress, and we’ve got a long way to go to fix all of our little kinks. But I truly believe our Founding Fathers had the best of intentions when they started, and we fixed it along the way,” Haley said as she struggled to make her point during a CNN town hall last month in New Hampshire, where host Jake Tapper asked her if, from a historical perspective, she believed that America had “never been a racist country.”

Tapper argued that “America was founded institutionally on many racist precepts, including slavery." Haley responded with a reference to the line that “all men are created equal,” but then finished her thought by saying that “the intent was everybody was going to be created equally.”

In her memoirs and public appearances, Haley has often recounted experiencing discrimination during her childhood: bullying, comments about her ethnicity in school, being disqualified from a beauty pageant for being neither white nor Black. Her father, a professor at a historically Black university, was racially profiled at a farmer’s market.

Haley says she dealt with racism through bridge-building.

“This habit of finding the similarities and avoiding the differences became very natural to me over time,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir.

During a 2014 visit to India, Haley spoke with an Indian news channel about her heritage and discrimination. Asked whether she felt the need to “disown” parts of her heritage to work in American politics, Haley said her background was core to her identity.

“I’m very, very proud of being the daughter of Indian parents, and I talk about it because it’s something that’s very special to me,” Haley said. “It is who I am.”

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Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Hollis, New Hampshire, and Noreen Nasir in New York contributed to this report.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP and Matt Brown can be reached at http://twitter.com/mrbrownsir.

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This story was first published on Feb. 1, 2024. It was published again on Feb. 2, 2024, to make clear in the headline that Haley has rejected talk of systemic racism.