For the better part of this year, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was blessedly irrelevant. That changed Friday, after a clip of a recent interview with Glenn Beck went viral. In the snippet, Haley appears to suggest the Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism until Dylann Roof made it so.
Roof, of course, is the 25-year-old white supremacist who massacred nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 (Haley was the state’s governor at the time).
“Here is this guy that comes out with this manifesto, holding the Confederate flag,” Haley said. “And had just hijacked everything that people thought of—we don’t have hateful people in South Carolina. It’s a small minority; it’s always going to be there.”
“People saw it as service, and sacrifice, and heritage,” she said—the “it” seeming to refer to the Confederate flag. “But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it.”
As if that revisionist history weren’t enough, Haley also found time to blame the national media for characterizing Roof’s brutal assault on a black church—an attack he had planned carefully, and even wrote a 2,000 word manifesto declaring his intent to start a race war.
“The national media came in droves—they wanted to define what happened. They wanted it to make this about racism. They wanted to make it about gun control. They wanted to make it about the death penalty,” Haley said.
Her remarks were widely shared and ridiculed online, though as the Daily Beast observes, they are consistent with how she characterized the flag’s meaning when she removed it from the S.C. State House two months after Roof’s attack.
At the time, Haley said the flag was a way for South Carolinians “to honor ancestors,” and an “integral part of our past”—but not because the flag speaks directly to chattel slavery, its brutal aftermath, and the lasting impact it’s had on the state.
But, as CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip pointed out on Twitter, Haley was aware that South Carolinians looked at the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate “long before Dylann Roof.”
“She even told me that her son had raised the issue to her before,” wrote Phillip.
But what is perhaps most insulting—and lost in the muck of Haley’s whitewashing of Confederate history—is how she appears to take credit for South Carolina’s “healing” in the aftermath of the massacre.
“I really pushed off the national media and I said, there will be a time and place when we talk about [racism] but it is not now. We’re going to get through the funerals, we’re going to respect them, and then we’re going to have that conversation,” she said, adding that there were a few “tough” weeks of “debate” that followed.
“But we didn’t have riots, we had vigils. We didn’t have protests, we had hugs. And the people of South Carolina stepped up and showed the world what it looks like to show grace and strength in the eyes of tragedy,” she said.
The passage of time—or a stint in the Trump administration—can surely allow you to flatten the truth to your convenience, which is exactly what Haley does here. But whether she’s a self-serving revisionist or a liar is less consequential than the effect of remarks like these.
It’s obvious why Haley might prefer to frame Roof as though he were created in a vacuum, absent any sort of lineage or cultural context. It reinforces the comical idea that a few weeks of “debate” can resolve generations’ worth of structural racism and actual, targeted violence. It supports the lie that individual acts of forgiveness could possibly stand in for accountability and atonement. Because in this paradigm, Roof is an anomaly, not a continuation.
Of course, Roof’s own words negate this. In fact, they point you down the path of where the kind of racial delusions Haley espouses can lead.
“I wish with a passion that n****** were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil an oppressive institution, and so on. Because if it was all it true, it would make it so much easier for me to accept our current situation,” Roof wrote in his manifesto. “But it isnt true. None of it is. We are told to accept what is happening to us because of ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations and myths.”
That the Confederate flag symbolizes something apart from a commitment to racialized chattel slavery is a myth. That people are unaware of its current, explicit endorsement of racial hierarchies and anti-black violence is a lie. But Haley has happily parroted these fabrications because she, like Roof, has actively chosen a gentler, sanitized version of her history. Along the way, she’s hijacked the congregants’ act of forgiveness into a patronizing rebuke of black rage, seeking atonement for a sin that she and others like her have never had the courage to name, let alone confront.