- A likely 2024 presidential candidate, Haley asserts that America is not a racist country even as she talks of her struggles as a brown girl in a black and white world.
Nikki Haley, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke on the first day of the Republic National Convention on Aug. 24, where she defended President Donald Trump’s handling of the economy and foreign policy, and painted a picture of a dystopian America under Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s leadership. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are still blaming America first,” she said. “Donald Trump has always put America first. He has earned four more years as president.”
In her remarks, delivered from Washington, D.C., Haley touched upon her Indian American heritage, race, foreign policy, economy, as well as her personal accomplishments as both the governor of South Carolina and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley, 48, the only Indian American leader to be featured in the list of RNC speakers, is being touted as a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate. There was speculation that Trump would replace Mike Pence with Haley as his running mate for the 2020 elections. Haley, however, quelled the rumors. During a tour last November to promote her book, “With All Due Respect: Defending America With Grit And Grace,” Haley told Fox News, “It’s amazing how this vice president stuff still keeps coming up.”
‘A Brown Girl in a Black and White World’
Haley’s RNC speech came a week after California Senator Kamala Harris made history becoming the first Black and Indian American woman to be chosen for a major party’s presidential ticket. In her acceptance speech as Joe Biden’s running mate, on Aug. 19, Harris spoke of her vision of America, her biracial immigrant roots, and paid tributes to her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who instilled in her a passion for public service, as well as her maternal aunties (chittis).
Haley, too, invoked her Indian American heritage while arguing that the U.S. is not racist. “In much of the Democratic Party, it’s now fashionable to say that America is racist,” she said. “That is a lie. America is not a racist country,” she said.
“This is personal for me. I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small southern town. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a brown girl in a black and white world,” she continued. However, in apparent contradiction, albeit mild, of her own assertion, Haley spoke about how her family faced “discrimination and hardship,” and how her parents never gave in to grievance and hate. “My mom built a successful business,” Haley said in her RNC speech. “My dad taught 30 years at a historically black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor.”
Haley’s parents — Ajit Singh Randhawa and Raj Kaur Randhawa — emigrated to South Carolina from Punjab. They were the first Indian immigrants in the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, about an hour south of Columbia. The New York Times reported that when Haley and her sister, Simran, entered the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, they were disqualified because the judges typically crowned one white and one black queen, and they didn’t know what to do with the Indian girls.
Haley graduated from Clemson University with a degree in accounting and briefly worked in finances before entering government. She was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004 and served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2017, when she was appointed to her role in the Trump administration. After leaving her post as U.N. ambassador, Haley went on to serve on the board of directors of Boeing before she resigned from the lucrative position in March because of her disagreements over airline bailouts amid the pandemic, according to NPR.
Political Clout of Indian Americans
In a think piece on CNN, political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan wrote that “the juxtaposition of Harris and Haley — two Indian-American women who have reached exalted heights of political power — in prime-time convention speaking roles is a testament to the growing political power of their community.”
Speculating that “Haley’s speech very well may position her as a front-runner for president in 2024 or 2028,” Ramakrishnan wrote that “it is unlikely, however, to change the minds of many Indian American voters. Their partisan identities and issue preferences have been aligned with the Democratic Party over many elections, and ethnic pride, no matter how strong, is unlikely to make much of a difference this November.”
Ramakrishnan observed that “Haley also had some early political stumbles, when she reportedly listed her race as ‘white’ on a voter registration card in 2001.” However, “since being the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,” Ramakrishnan said “she has spoken out more openly about her Indian heritage and has generally gotten favorable coverage in the Indian and Indian American press.”
Unlike Harris’s speech, which has energized and engaged the South Asian community, Haley’s speech did not elicit a similar response. There were mixed responses on social media platforms. Supporters lauded her speech and hailed her as a rising GOP star, while others condemned her for aligning with Trump and his anti-immigration rhetoric and called her a “disgrace” to the Indian American community.
A Loyal Trump Supporter
Several news outlets called Haley out for her speech. The New York Times said that though Haley had once distanced herself from Trump, “she has become a fierce defender of him in recent months.” The Times says that Haley’s support “is remarkable largely because it has not been constant. Last August, she pushed back against the president when he cast attention on an attempted break-in at the Baltimore home of Representative Elijah E. Cummings,” the Times said, adding that Haley took to Twitter to express herself. “This is so unnecessary,” she wrote. “During her time as ambassador under Trump, Haley appeared to perfect the art of distancing herself from the most criticized policies of the White House, even while she stayed publicly loyal to Trump,” the Times said.
The Hill said that Haley’s remarks came “amid a national reckoning over systemic racial inequality and injustice,” as well as “amid protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of a Black man as he tried to enter his car on Aug. 23.
The Hill said that while Haley’s speech “echoed many of the convention’s featured speakers in praising” Trump’s leadership, at times it “struck a more conciliatory tone.” At a point in her speech, Haley referenced her decision as South Carolina governor to o remove the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol in the wake of a deadly mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“After that horrific tragedy, we didn’t turn against each other,” she said. “We came together — black and white, Democrat and Republican. Together, we made the hard choices needed to heal — and removed a divisive symbol, peacefully and respectfully.,” she said. “What happened then should give us hope now. America isn’t perfect. But the principles we hold dear are perfect. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America.”
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.