A Response to Nikki Haley’s Claim That America Is a Non-Racist Nation

Growing up, I attended grade school and middle school in St. Louis County, and in Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa. During my education in Iowa, I distinctly remember being taught that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights.

This statement never sat right with me, perhaps influenced by the fact that I had Black parents and often found myself to be the only or one of the few Black people in class. It felt like a discordant note in the narrative of American history, especially viewed through the lens of my personal background. Years later, in a different educational setting, I learned what I had always known to be true: that the Civil War was indeed fought over slavery. This experience was a stark reminder of how narratives can be shaped and reshaped, often omitting crucial truths, particularly regarding racial issues in America.

Acknowledging the reality of the United States’ past is a critical step in the ongoing process of realizing its ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Haley’s assertion that America has never been a racist country overlooks significant chapters of American history that are defined by systemic racism. From the enslavement of Africans — a brutal practice that established racial discrimination as a foundational element of American society, to the treatment of Indigenous peoples through policies of displacement and cultural genocide — the nation’s history is marked by racial injustice. The implementation of Jim Crow laws post-Civil War and the enactment of racially targeted legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act further illustrate systemic racial discrimination. Additionally, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and ongoing racial disparities in various sectors of society underscore the persistent nature of this issue.

My personal reflection as a descendant of enslaved Africans emphasizes the deep and lasting impact of these historical injustices. The endurance and resilience of my ancestors, and the ongoing struggles for racial equality, highlight the need for a truthful acknowledgment of this past. Haley’s statement fails to recognize these profound aspects of American history and their continuing influence on society. It negates the experiences of countless individuals who have been affected by systemic racism and undermines the efforts to address these deep-rooted issues. America’s journey towards realizing its ideals of liberty and justice for all is ongoing, and acknowledging the reality of its past is a critical step in this process.

Slavery Era (1619-1865): The inception of the United States was marked by the enslavement of Africans, my ancestors. This system, which was deeply rooted in racial discrimination, established slavery as an inheritable status, ensuring its perpetuation for generations. This prolonged exploitation and dehumanization of African people formed a fundamental part of the nation’s early economic and social fabric.

Treatment of Indigenous Peoples: European colonization led to the displacement, cultural suppression and deaths of Indigenous peoples. Policies like the Indian Removal Act and the establishment of the reservation system systematically stripped them of their lands and rights. The cultural and physical genocide of these peoples is a stark indicator of systemic racism.

Jim Crow Laws (Late 1800s-1965): Post-Civil War, Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South enforced racial segregation, denying Black Americans equal rights and reinforcing racial hierarchies.

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: This act was the first major legal restriction on immigration based on race, specifically targeting Chinese individuals and setting a precedent for future racial discrimination in immigration policies.

Japanese American Internment (1942-1945): During World War II, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in internment camps. This action, motivated by racial prejudice and fear, was a clear violation of civil liberties and is another example of systemic racism.

Civil Rights Movement (1950s-1960s): The movement highlights the immense struggle and sacrifice made by Black Americans and allies to combat racial segregation and discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement led to significant, though not complete, changes in laws and attitudes, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ongoing Racial Disparities: Despite progress, racial inequalities persist in the United States. These disparities are evident in the criminal justice system, housing, employment, healthcare and education. They are often the result of historical and ongoing systemic racism, affecting generations of people of color.

Personal Reflection: As a descendant of enslaved Africans, I carry a profound connection to this history. It has significantly shaped my identity, my understanding of our nation’s past and my perspective on the ongoing struggles for racial equality. The legacy of my ancestors’ endurance and resilience in the face of unimaginable hardships continues to inspire and influence me deeply. This connection motivates my desire for our country to fully live up to its promise of liberty, justice and equality for all. My hope is that acknowledging our past and actively working towards rectifying these injustices will pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.

This first appeared on Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s Substack.




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