Nikki Haley's Remarks On Charleston In Her State Of The Union Response Are Problematic For One Important Reason
On Tuesday night, two representatives of the main American political parties took center stage: President Obama, who delivered his final State of the Union address, and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican rebuttal. During Haley's speech, which has been pretty well-received by pundits and the political pres, she touched on the Charleston shooting, the racially-motivated attack on black church parishioners. It was one of the most horrifying incidents of her gubernatorial tenure. But one clear omission in her remarks — the word "black" — made them fall short of what it should have accomplished.
Haley generated some controversy in the aftermath of the harrowing incident, which left nine people dead. While she drew praise for her somber leadership, she was also hit with charges of hypocrisy and political opportunism. She swiftly moved to pull down the ever-controversial Confederate flag from flying over the South Carolina statehouse, but less than a year earlier, she defended that flag's right to fly. Suffice to say that Haley tends to walk a narrow line when she discusses the shooting and the black protest movements (Black Lives Matter foremost among them) that have arisen in response to the actions of law enforcement and random attackers alike.
Here's what she said Tuesday night:
This past summer, South Carolina was dealt a tragic blow. On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening in June, at the historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, twelve faithful men and women, young and old, went to Bible study. That night, someone new joined them. He didn't look like them, didn't act like them, didn't sound like them. They didn't throw him out. They didn't call the police. Instead, they pulled up a chair and prayed with him. For an hour.
We lost nine incredible souls that night. What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about. Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn't have violence, we had vigils. We didn't have riots, we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world. We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.
There's an important lesson in this. In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there's a tendency to falsely equate noise with results. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.
There's no doubt that Haley's delivery was effective and moving. She may have turned in the most polished, competent performance in a State of the Union response of any Republican since Obama took office. But what's also glaringly apparent is the extremely non-racial way in which she referred to the Charleston shooting and its victims. Nowhere in her remarks did the word "black" appear, nor "African American." She did mention the "hate" of the shooter (Dylann Roof, who's still awaiting trial), and called him a "domestic terrorist." But if you knew nothing else but what she said, you could just as easily mistake him for an anti-government extremist or a violent conspiracy theorist.
It's also particularly problematic that Haley contrasted the behavior of her state's citizens against that of protesters in places like Baltimore ― the clear implication of the "we didn't have riots, we had hugs" part of her speech. This is a tact she's taken before, praising her own state's people for their supposed restraint while implicitly rebuking the property damage and unrest that erupted following the death of Baltimore citizen Freddie Gray while he was in police custody last year. Not to say that anybody likes rioting, or that any politician would embrace it, but this attitude is rather lacking in understanding and empathy.
Seeing as how Haley occasionally likes to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (she claimed in 2013 that he would be "proud" of the state for her ascent to the governorship, since she is the child of Indian immigrants), it might do her well to remember his highly insightful view of the psychological causes of rioting. King argued that such acts "may be deplored" but "should be understood," during a 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association:
Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest.
Basically, it's easy to sit back and say "we had hugs," but that completely ignores the differing contexts between Charleston and Baltimore. The latter was a case of alleged fatal wrongdoing by law enforcement, while the former was a swiftly-punished, widely-condemned killing spree. This also passes up sober-minded analysis in favor of plain old sanctimony.
Haley's commentary about unity in South Carolina also suffers for some of the, shall we say, strident comments she's made in the past against black protesters who have decried incidents of racially-charged police violence. During a speech in September, Haley claimed that "black lives do matter and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that's laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore." She followed that up by stating that "some people think you need to yell and scream to make a difference. Often the best thing we can do is turn down the volume and listen."
The implication is clear: Black Lives Matter is just shouting and yelling, and it's time to phase them out along with all the rest of the noise. There's no denying that it's refreshing to hear a prominent Republican touch even a little lightly on racial issues, as Haley has. But when you consider those past remarks alongside the language she used Tuesday night ― condemning the "tendency to falsely equate noise with results" ― it seems clear that she's criticizing racial justice activists just as pointedly as anyone on her own side. And that's more than a little tacky and tasteless, considering she's highlighting a racist killing in her state to bolster her own political brand.