Anyone searching for a compelling visual testimony to the brutal absurdity of the American South’s racial obsessions surely need look no further than the photo of little Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Nikki Randahawa, on the stage of the annual Miss Wee Bamberg (South Carolina) pageant. In the wake of school desegregation, it had become the practice to crown both a white and a black winner. Haley and her sister had introduced an unforeseen element of racial ambiguity that left pageant officials fearful that neither the white or black parents in the audience would accept the two little brown-skinned daughters of an immigrant Sikh couple in their racial category. The wrapped package with a deflated beach ball in her hands is what she later called their “disqualification” prize. Surely no one in attendance that night, save perhaps the little girl herself, could imagine that some three decades later, Bamberg would boast signs welcoming motorists to the “Home of Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina.”
It is tempting to see Haley’s rise as personal triumph and regional redemption. Yet contrary to liberal presumptions, Nikki Haley has proven to be anything but the empathetic, compassionate champion of minorities, women, and immigrants that her background seemed almost to mandate. Instead, growing up astride the color line appears to have quickly shown a savvy young woman like Haley which side of the racial divide offered the better prospects for fulfilling her ambitions. The same was true of the partisan divide as well, for South Carolina was already an established GOP stronghold when she entered the 2004 primary, knocked off the longest-serving incumbent in the state House of Representatives, and then sailed unopposed to her seat as the first Indian-American member of the South Carolina legislature.
Indeed, Haley, an early Tea Party favorite, stands shoulder to shoulder with other Deep South governors in their longstanding and unwavering faith in bringing in new industry at any cost. Forced increasingly to weigh their obligations to preserve segregation against the development imperative as civil rights pressures mounted, the balance began to tip in favor of the latter in the 1960s, when concerns about the potentially harmful effects of racial tensions on business development helped to pave the way for the initial desegregation of public schools and other public facilities and accommodations. A similar consideration has factored heavily in more recent disputes over removing the Confederate battle flag from state property or excising it from the flags of several southern states.
In South Carolina, that flag might still be flying atop the state capitol had a torrent of threatened economic and tourist boycotts and pressure from the state’s business community not forced the legislature 15 years ago to at least move it to the capitol grounds. Governor Haley had shown no public inclination to move against it until the slaughter of nine African-Americans in Charleston by a Rebel-flag-worshipping gunman became both catalyst and premise for a step that southern political leaders had been at once eager but too timid to take.
Not only did the flag pose a threat to party unity, but clinging to such a divisive and seemingly hostile and provincial symbol is hardly indicative of a community ready to welcome global companies and their employees. Make no mistake about it, the moves by Nikki Haley and her counterparts in other southern states amounted in no small sense to what a proponent of ditching the Confederate insignia on the Mississippi state flag once called a “strategic business decision.” Without questioning the sincerity of their expressions of horror over the Charleston tragedy, distancing their state and their party from what so many see as an emblem of hatred and persecution seems to have a huge upside for southern Republicans, especially those with national political ambitions like South Carolina’s Senator Lindsey Graham or perhaps even, its governor.
Albeit 150 years too late, the move by Haley and other southern leaders to finally furl the Confederate flag is a welcome one nonetheless. History, after all, offers too few examples of right things done for precisely the right reasons to afford us the luxury of being picky.
James C. Cobb is the Spalding distinguished professor of history at the University of Georgia in Athens. His most recent book is The South and America Since World War II. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.