Nikki Haley digs another hole over Civil War comments: ‘I had Black friends growing up’

The Republican candidate appeared on stage at a CNN town hall on Thursday night where her attempt to address her slavery omission was likened to ‘cleaning up with a dirty rag’

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 05 January 2024 11:10 GMT
'I should have said slavery': Nikki Haley addresses backlash from Civil War comments

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley sought to make amends for her recent failure to cite slavery as a principle cause of the Civil War – but ended up digging herself a deeper hole by offering the patronising get-out: “I had Black friends growing up.”

Speaking during a CNN town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday, the former South Carolina governor was asked by host Erin Burnett to clarify her thoughts on the conflict and to comment on her rival Chris Christie’s contention that she had attempted to dodge the issue for fear of alienating potential GOP voters.

“I should have said slavery right off the bat, but if you grow up in South Carolina, literally in second and third grade, you learn about slavery,” she answered.

“You grow up and you have, you know, I had Black friends growing up. It is a very talked about thing.

“We have a big history in South Carolina when it comes to slavery, when it comes to all the things that happened with the Civil War.”

She continued: “I was thinking past slavery, and talking about the lesson that we would learn going forward. I shouldn’t have done that. I should have said slavery. But, in my mind, that’s a given. Everybody associates the Civil War with slavery.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, Ms Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants to the United States, recalled her own experiences of encountering racism in childhood.

“We dealt with our own challenges. I remember when I would get teased on the playground, and I would come home,” she said.

“My mom would always say, ‘Your job is not to show them how you’re different, your job is to show them how you’re similar.’”

On her later difficulties navigating the Civil War’s complex and enduring legacy as state governor, she added: “I knew half of South Carolinians saw the Confederate flag as heritage and tradition. The other half saw it as slavery and hate… A leader doesn’t decide who’s right. When you serve the people, you serve everybody.”

Ms Haley’s latest attempts to fire-fight the issue attracted immediate derision following the CNN broadcast, where anchor Abby Phillip smiled wryly at the “Black friends” remark and noted it was already being ridiculed by Ron DeSantis’ supporters online.

Analyst Van Jones chimed in, describing her performance as “painful” and likening her answer to “cleaning up with a dirty rag”.

Nikki Haley speaks at a CNN town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, on 4 January 2024 (CNN)

“This should not be hard for a women of colour, in this day and age, to talk with real power and force about how awful slavery was and how important it is for us as a country to get past it and deal with it and confront it, so we can be better,” he said.

The controversy first arose when Ms Haley was asked by a voter in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Wednesday 27 December what she felt had ignited the deadliest war in US history.

Rather than saying slavery, she answered vaguely: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do.”

Her failure to cite slavery in her answer attracted an avalanche of criticism, with everyone from Joe Biden to Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison and civil rights leader Rev. Dr William Barber hitting out at her comments.

She subsequently apologised, commenting: “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that, that’s the easy part. What I was saying was what does it mean to us today? It was about individual freedom, it was about economic freedom... Our goal is to make sure we never go back to the stain of slavery, but what’s the lesson in all of that?”

More dubiously, Ms Haley also claimed during an interview the following day with The Pulse of NH radio station that the question had come from a “Democrat plant”, without providing any evidence to support the claim.

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