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    Never racist? Nikki Haley’s memoir tells a different story


    Nikki Haley recalls in her 2012 book how staff at a fruit stand called the police on her turban-wearing father. It is one of several anecdotes that contradicts her GOP primary message on race.

    The new family didn’t look like anyone else in tiny Bamberg, South Carolina. 

    The Randhawas were Indians who had come to the U.S. via Canada. The father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, had been hired to teach biology at nearby Voorhees College, a historically Black institution. The mother, Raj Kaur Randhawa, was a trained lawyer. Having left behind lives of comfort and status in their homeland, both were eager to take part in the American Dream.

    But first, the Randhawas needed someplace to live.

    “When it came time for my parents to find a home, no one would rent to them,” their American-born daughter, Nikki Haley, recalled in her 2012 memoir. “Word quickly got around that my father worked at the ‘Black school,’ and besides that, he and my mom were obviously foreigners themselves.”

    “When they finally found a house,” Haley wrote, “they had to buy it, not rent it. And they were told there were conditions: They couldn’t entertain Black people in it. They couldn’t have alcohol in it. And they had to sell it back to the man they had bought it from.”

    More: Nikki Haley turns to New Hampshire for a new chance at victory in Republican presidential primary

    ‘Are we perfect? No.’

    As she works to win votes from Republican moderates and conservatives ahead of primaries in New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, Nikki Haley has strained to avoid any talk of race that might alienate the MAGA right, earning sometimes-savage criticism for dodging questions on slavery and American history. 

    On Tuesday, asked by Brian Kilmeade on Fox News if the Republican Party was racist, Haley pivoted into a defense of the country as a whole. 

    “We’re not a racist country, Brian,” she said. “We’ve never been a racist country. Our goal is to make sure that 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,” she said. “I faced racism when I was growing up.”

    More: Donald Trump to get Tim Scott’s endorsement, striking a blow to Nikki Haley

    ‘That is her lived experience’

    Haley describes some of that racism in matter-of-fact tones in her first book, “Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story,” recalling the bias her immigrant family experienced and witnessed in housing, at school – and while campaigning for office.

    The book’s early chapters tell a quintessentially American story of a strong family persevering through difficult times – and is evidence, analysts say, that Haley sees the country as an essentially fair one, despite its violent and troubled history.

    “It’s good politics for Republican voters in South Carolina, it’s good for a general election, and that is her lived experience,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. “She has the optimistic view that – like Bill Clinton once said – if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it.”

    On Friday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott announced that he was endorsing former President Donald Trump over Haley in the 2024 primary contest, in a blow to Haley’s campaign in their home state. Like Haley, Scott had downplayed racism while on the campaign trail before dropping out of the GOP race. “America works,” he told an interviewer last year. 

    More: Haley says Trump is ‘lying’ about her record, chides him for refusing to debate

    An American tale

    In her memoir, Haley shows how, step by step, America worked for her immigrant family. 

    “It’s difficult to overstate what unusual figures my mom and dad cut in central South Carolina in 1969,” she writes. “There was my mom, tiny and determined, in her traditional sari. And there was my father, tall and proud, in his Sikh turban. From the beginning, their new country showed them both a boundless capacity for acceptance and the ugly residue of a less tolerant time.”

    Haley recalls her father’s quiet dignity as police were called on Ajit Randhawa at a roadside fruit stall because his appearance had unsettled the proprietors. “Even then, I knew this was a part of his daily life that he hoped I hadn’t noticed,” she writes. “But I did notice, and it hurt.”

    One local babysitter refused to take on the brown-skinned children. Another beat Haley so badly her screams could be heard from next door – though the neighbors who heard it didn’t intervene. At a kiddie beauty pageant, Haley and her sister were ushered off the stage because they were weren’t black or white − fitting neither of the local prize categories.

    There’s no bitterness in Haley’s recollection of these events. Time and again in “Can’t Is Not an Option,” she emphasizes her family’s perseverance and the virtues of moving on.  

    “Yes, I was disqualified from the pageant,” she writes, “but the same town that disqualified me was the one that accepted me into a Girl Scout troop, helped my dad get a job in a community college, and helped my mom get a job as a sixth-grade social studies teacher.”

    From underdog to top dog

    And time and again, when Haley is attacked for her background, she winds up leaving her opponents in the dust. 

    During her first Republican primary run for the South Carolina state house, in 2004, flyers carpeted the district describing Haley’s opponent, an entrenched incumbent, as a white, male, Christian business owner and Haley − an American certified public accountant who had converted to Christianity − as an Indian woman, a Buddhist, and a housekeeper.

    More: Nikki Haley was once wildly popular in SC. Does she stand a chance against Trump there?

    Much as opponents of America’s first Black president dropped references to “Barack Hussein Obama” during the 2008 presidential campaign, her opponent ran ads describing Haley, who has gone by Nikki all her life, as “Nimrata N. Randhawa,” ignoring her married name.

    The family received threatening phone calls and her car was followed. Strangers would cruise slowly past their house. “Michael and I agreed we could no longer let the kids play outside,” she writes.

    In the end, though, Haley beat her primary opponent, the longest-serving legislator in state history, by 10 points and went on to win the general election. 

    Catering to ‘tradition’ in the Deep South

    In 2010, Haley ran an underdog campaign to replace Gov. Mark Sanford. As her profile grew, the Republican primary attacks became sleazier. One state senator, referring to Obama and Haley, told reporters, “We’ve already got a raghead in Washington, we don’t need one in the statehouse.”

    Still, Haley took 49% of the primary vote and beat her Democratic opponent in a history-making victory. Once in office, she clashed with the state’s Black Legislative Caucus over a lack of diversity in her cabinet. “You can’t grow up the way I did and come at me like that,” she told the legislators. “You can’t tell me I don’t know what you’re feeling.”

    “I had grown up with a white population that didn’t think we were white enough and a Black community that didn’t see us as minority enough,” she wrote.

    In the state house she had less power than some of her fellow governors, thanks to a Reconstruction-era state constitution. “Back then, the (needless to say, white) powers that be had weakened the governorship out of fear that a black man might be elected governor,” she wrote.

    Much as she tried to avoid confronting racial issues as governor, tragedy forced Haley to act.

    More: Biden speech in Charleston slamming white supremacists interrupted by protestors

    During the 2010 race, Haley had described the Civil War as a fight between “tradition” and “change” and said the Confederate battle flag, which flew over the state house, was “not something that is racist.” (The only flags she mentions in her 2012 memoir are those flown by Tea Party activists.)

    Five years later, after a racist gunman murdered nine members of a Black church in Charleston during Bible study, Haley asked lawmakers to remove it. Even then, she said the flag had been “hijacked” by the killer.

    Haley’s reluctance to pick at her home state’s – and America’s – wounds came back to bite her last month when she told a New Hampshire town hall that the cause of the Civil War was “basically how government was going to run, what you could and couldn’t do, the freedoms in what people could and couldn’t do,” omitting any mention of slavery.

    Despite the hackles, the former governor’s avoidance of race is still good politics in the GOP contest.

    “She thinks this is the greatest country in the world,” Knotts said. “As a minority making that message, people find it really appealing.”

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