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Nikki Haley's State of the Union response bashed Trump — and racial justice activists

Nikki Haley delivered hits to both sides.
Nikki Haley delivered hits to both sides.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In her official response to President Obama’s final State of the Union, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley repeatedly returned to a theme that went all but unmentioned in the president’s own address: racial justice.

Haley, eager to distance her party from the all-consuming antics of Donald Trump, made a veiled shot at the frontrunner’s oft-repeated proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country.

"No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country," she said.

That statement, coupled with her own immigrant story, had the effect of taking a warmer tone on immigration.

Those statements eclipsed any brief mention of tougher immigration and refugee policies — though Haley is one of more than two dozen GOP governors to say that refugees are unwelcome in her state.

Then, nearly in the same breath, she turned to one of the more stunning moments in race relations the country witnessed this year. That was, of course, the shooting of nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, in Haley’s home state.

Haley’s handling of the shooting’s aftermath, particularly her successful push to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, earned her widespread praise from Republicans and Democrats alike — it’s part of the reason she was chosen to deliver the party’s rebuttal this year.

But in tonight’s speech, she attempted to use that reaction as a legitimate counterpoint to the protests that have followed other incidents in which black lives have been lost.

"Our people would not allow hate to win," she said. "We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs."

Here is where Haley’s racial harmony rhetoric ceased to be inclusive. By pitting her state’s response against tactics of groups like Black Lives Matter, she effectively moved to block any legitimate discussion of racially motivated shootings from entering her party’s discourse.

Many black citizens feel that, contrary to Haley, riots represent a legitimate, if extreme, tactic to force awareness of the disproportionate threat that black people face. As Jelani Cobb argued after the Baltimore riots, "With the exception of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., every major riot by the black community of an American city since the Second World War has been ignited by a single issue: police tactics."

That’s not to say that Haley's comments will be what alienates a generation of black and other minority voters from sympathizing with the Republican Party — that process has long ago been set in motion.

But Haley’s attitude toward racial justice, especially the model minority Republicans chose to deliver their response, shows how far the party’s establishment has to go before it can attract the very people she was trying to reach.