Republican Nikki Haley’s “not a racist country” comment sparks controversy

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Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds a rally at the Omni Mt. Washington Hotel & Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, U.S. January 16, 2024. REUTERS/Faith Ninivaggi

In a recent TV interview, Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential candidate, once again reignited a debate about racism in America, bringing the contentious politics of race to the forefront as the GOP nominations kick off.

The statement sent the US, and the internet, into a frenzy, raising many an eyebrow, including that of NBA legend Charles Barkley who burst into laughter in a televised interview that played the Haley comment back to him. “This country was built on racism”, he exclaimed on CNN, adding “this is the greatest country in the world, but you can still criticise it.”

Just weeks after stirring controversy with her comments on whether slavery caused the Civil War, Haley asserted on Tuesday on Fox News that America is “not a racist country” and has “never been a racist country.” Despite acknowledging personal experiences with racism, Haley, like other GOP contenders, maintains that systemic racism is nonexistent in the U.S., a stance gaining renewed attention in a presidential election where discussions on race dominate political discourse.

Haley’s response was prompted by MSNBC host Joy Reid’s remark that she is a “brown lady” trying to succeed in a party perceived as deeply anti-immigrant. Haley, in her Fox News interview, emphasized her journey from facing racism in a small rural town to becoming the first female minority governor, a U.N. ambassador, and now a presidential candidate. Race has been a sensitive issue for Haley, the sole person of colour remaining in a predominantly white Republican Party.

Her campaign’s statement to The Washington Post reaffirmed her belief that while racism has existed in America, the country itself has never been fundamentally racist. Despite the historical challenges, the statement highlighted that this “doesn’t change Nikki’s belief that America is special because its people are always striving to do better and live up to our founding ideals of freedom and equality.”

During a CNN town hall, fellow Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, who previously criticized Haley on the Civil War issue, echoed her sentiments, stating that the United States is “not a racist country” and emphasizing the nation’s ability to overcome historical challenges.

The comments from both candidates exemplify the delicate line they tread on race issues with the GOP base, especially considering the influence of former President Donald Trump, who has been associated with racist rhetoric.

Trump, in response to Haley’s remarks, launched a social media attack, misspelling her name and using racist undertones.

The discussion on racism extended beyond the GOP primary race, with Vice President Kamala Harris emphasizing the need to acknowledge the history of racism while working towards progress.

Beyond Washington, celebrities, news anchors and the internet are awash with opinions on a topic that some are surprised is even up for debate. Although Haley is within striking distance of frontrunner Trump to be the Republican candidate according to the most recent polls, how might her latest controversial comment damage her chances?

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