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OPINION

To distinguish herself from Trump, Haley needs to renounce racism instead of denying its existence

But her political ambitions get in the way of speaking the truth.

Nikki Haley in Hollis, N.H., on Thursday.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

After avoiding any mention of slavery when she was asked at a New Hampshire campaign event last month what caused the Civil War, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley hit yet another skid when discussing this nation’s past and present racism.

When Brian Kilmeade, a Fox News host, asked Haley during an interview whether she was “involved in a racist party” — meaning the Republican Party — Haley emphatically said “No.” Given that her party’s undisputed leader is Donald Trump, her answer was, at best, farcical. But Haley’s response quickly jumped from farce to fantasy.

“We’re not a racist country, Brian; we’ve never been a racist country,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure today is better than yesterday. Are we perfect? No. But our goal is to always make sure we try and be more perfect every day that we can. I know I faced racism when I was growing up, but I can tell you today is a lot better than it was then.”

Haley is still facing racism — this time from Trump. And instead of regurgitating right-wing blather that racism doesn’t exist or never existed, Haley should call it out, especially when it’s coming from the man she is trying to defeat for her party’s presidential nomination.

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Trump is clearly concerned that recent polls show Haley cutting into the former president’s lead in New Hampshire. With that state’s primary on Tuesday, Trump is firing up his old racist birther conspiracies — which began with Barack Obama and continued in 2020 when Joe Biden choose Kamala Harris as his running mate — to cast doubt on Haley’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate.

On Truth Social, Trump’s little social media hatefest, he recently reposted nonsense from a right-wing site claiming that because Haley’s parents weren’t US citizens when she was born in 1972, she is disqualified from being president or vice president.

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Haley is the daughter of Indian immigrants who moved to South Carolina, where she was born. Whatever else one might find disqualifying about Haley as a presidential candidate, her natural-born American citizenship is not debatable. But given Trump and his supporters’ aversion to truth, facts simply don’t stand a chance.

At his rallies and on social media, Trump is referring to Haley as “Nimrada,” his puerile misspelling and mispronunciation of her birth name, Nimarata. Much the way he would hiss “Barack Hussein Obama” to boost lies that Obama was a Muslim from Kenya, he’s weaponizing Haley’s name — I won’t say “real” name since her middle name is Nikki and Haley comes from her husband — as a nudge-wink otherization of a candidate who isn’t white. Every time he uses Haley’s birth name, he’s telling his followers that this brown woman is nothing like them.

Haley should not only denounce Trump’s racist attacks but call out why racism is such an effective tool with his base and how America — and her party — must turn away from it. That would create a distinction between her and her former boss, perhaps even providing an off-ramp for any Republican who can’t stomach Trump’s open embrace of racist discord and hate.

But as someone convinced that she can peel off enough MAGA loyalists to shrink Trump’s lead in the polls, Haley won’t do it. After all, this is the former South Carolina governor who in 2015 initially ignored demands for the removal of a Confederate flag outside the State House after a white supremacist murdered nine Black churchgoers in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

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Years later Haley said in an interview that the murderer, who posted pictures of himself holding the flag in his manifesto, “hijacked” the Confederate symbol from people who saw it as representative of “service and sacrifice and heritage.” She ignored how that traitors’ banner had been soaked in the blood of generations of Black people long before a young white man with a gun who wanted to start a race war walked into a Bible study class in a historic Black church.

While pandering for votes, Haley even disrespects her own experiences with racism. In her 2012 memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story,” she recalled the “ignorance, prejudice, and sometimes blatant hostility” her parents faced when they moved from India to Bamberg, a small South Carolina city. In a Politico interview last year, Haley talked about people laughing at her mother’s traditional Indian saris and the country club invitation that arrived at every home except her family’s.

And she evoked the childhood memory of two police cars that approached her and her father at a fruit stand because a white person found his Sikh turban to be suspicious. “My dad didn’t say a single word going home. He was hoping I didn’t notice. But I hurt for him,” she recalled, adding, “I remember that pain.”

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Haley may remember the pain that racism inflicted on her family, but she’s willing to ignore its ongoing systemic and generational impacts on millions in the nation she wants to lead. She certainly knows better. But conversations about racism will continue to be Haley’s third rail as long as her political ambitions get in the way of speaking the truth.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.