Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina – and previous US ambassador to the United Nations – made a curious remark about the Confederacy. Earlier in December 2019, Haley stated that the Confederate flag represented ‘service, sacrifice and heritage’ until it was ‘hijacked’ by Dylann Roof. The latter is a white supremacist murderer responsible for the shooting deaths of multiple African American worshippers at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
When carrying out his attack, Roof was wearing, among other racist emblems, the flag of the Confederacy. Haley, who was governor in 2015, oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina legislature building. Her remarks defending the flag as an honourable emblem may seem surprising, at least initially. Haley, the child of Indian immigrants, represents an American success story. Intelligent, articulate and resourceful, her life typifies the social mobility of non-white migrants for which America is supposedly famous.
So why, as a member of a racial minority, is she defending a symbol of an openly racist enterprise? Haley has positioned herself – with help from her colleagues in the Republican party – as a moderate and reasonable voice, in contrast to the overtly misogynistic, vulgar and racist Trump. With her comments defending the Confederate flag she has, in one swoop, demolished her status as a ‘moderate’, but has also used her racial-minority status to deflect from her party’s racist platform.
The Confederate flag – a response to civil rights
The deployment of the Confederate flag, and the building of statues of slave-owning Confederate generals, is not a benign exercise in remembering the past. The flag, and associated monuments to the military leaders of the Confederacy, were erected as a direct response to the push by African Americans for civil rights. As black Americans organised themselves to fight segregation and racist legislation, politicians from the former Confederate states – such as South Carolina – raised the Confederate flag on state buildings.
In the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, Confederate monuments and symbols all but disappeared. They were resurrected after World War 2, as the struggle of black Americans for civil and economic rights gathered momentum. National Geographic magazine published an article, in 2015, detailing how white segregationist politicians revived the Confederate flag in order to promote the white supremacist cause. Rather than being simple reminders of the Civil War, the Confederate monuments provided a rallying point for modern-day white racism fighting a rearguard action.
Since the end of the Civil War, there have been attempts by the neo-Confederate partisans to whitewash the purpose of the Confederacy by claiming that states’ rights was the main rationale for secession. Today’s defenders of Confederate monuments make the same claim. But this dishonest explanation is undermined by the words of those who began the Confederacy – slavery and white supremacy was encoded in the founding documents of the slave-owning states.
The ‘Lost Cause’
White supremacy was defeated, but it also metamorphosed – into segregation and legalised discrimination. In the 1950s and 60s, as segregation was being rolled back, the Confederate flag reemerged as a symbol of a white racist backlash. In the discussions about race and racism in the United States, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ was born – the Confederacy’s violence against African Americans was obfuscated by a wilful rewriting of its history. Racist vigilantism against black communities was rationalised as defence of a ‘lost cause’ and the values of an imagined past.
White Southerners have been passing on this mythology of the ‘lost cause’, wrapping the Confederacy in a reimagined past of honour and sacrifice. The South consisted of ‘gentlemen’ willing and able to sacrifice themselves against the Northern invaders – the Confederacy became a fixture of regional identity. Reinventing the Confederate flag as an emblem of ‘Southern pride’ allows white supremacy to cast itself in the role of victim – precisely the kind of voters Haley’s political career depends upon.
The neo-Confederate revision of history – sanitising the racism of the white South and promoting a fictionalised version of the Confederacy – is a main plank in the platform of the Alternative Right today. When Haley contributes to this fictional portrayal, she is actively aiding and abetting the extreme racism of the white Right. Dylann Roof did not ‘hijack’ the flag, but carried out the kind of violence the flag represents. Since the conclusion of the Civil War, white supremacy has fought a racial-vigilante-type of warfare against the African American community.
Lawless racist vigilantes – the forerunners of the Ku Klux Klan – may sound like relics from a bygone era, but today’s white supremacist terrorism falls squarely in that tradition. The main emblem of these killers is the Confederate flag. It is not unusual for white vigilante groups to direct their violence against federal authorities – white victimhood at the hands of ‘multicultural elites’ is a recurring theme of racist organisations.
When Haley defends the Confederate flag, she is providing a platform for recycled racism – or at least a ‘respectable face’ for white supremacy. She has proven that she is articulate and intelligent, unlike Trump – but just as extreme as the US President in her ideology. When she excuses Trump’s racist comments directed at Representative Ilhan Omar – ‘go back to where you came from’ – she is facilitating a white nationalist agenda. There is no rehabilitating white supremacy.