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“This Is the Republican Party”: Khalil Gibran Muhammad Says Nikki Haley’s Slavery Flub Was No Accident

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Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is facing backlash after she failed to cite slavery as a cause of the Civil War during a town hall event in New Hampshire last week. She later clarified that “of course the Civil War was about slavery,” but her initial reluctance to say so is indicative of how Republican leaders have long avoided reckoning with the country’s past, says Harvard historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad. “Nikki Haley has consistently denied the relevance of the history of racism in this country and the presence of racism in this country,” he says. “This is the Republican Party.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about teaching and what we understand about history, and switch to a connected but different subject. Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, I want to ask you about the presidential race right now. On the campaign trail last week, Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley made headlines after she did not cite slavery when asked what she believed caused the U.S. Civil War. She was fielding a question from a participant in a town hall meeting in Berlin, New Hampshire.

TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: what was the cause of the United States Civil War?

NIKKI HALEY: Well, don’t come with an easy question. Right? I mean, 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. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?

TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: [inaudible]

NIKKI HALEY: I’m sorry?

TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: I’m not running for president. I wanted to see your viewpoint on the cause of the Civil War.

NIKKI HALEY: I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And we — I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.

TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: Thank you. And in the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word “slavery.”

NIKKI HALEY: What do you want me to say about slavery?

TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: No, you answered my question. Thank you.

NIKKI HALEY: Next question.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley. And again, let’s remember, she’s the former governor of South Carolina. Facing backlash over her comment, she later said, quote, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s the easy part of it.”

Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, you’re a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. It was described as a real gaffe on her part, that she misspoke, but explain exactly what she was voicing. This was not unusual to hear in a certain sector of U.S. society.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: It was not a gaffe. Let’s be clear about that. Nikki Haley has consistently denied the relevance of the history of racism in this country and the present of racism in this country. Nikki Haley, running in a party who is led by a man known for serial discrimination against people of color, as well as harboring actual neo-Nazis both within his larger political close circle but also defending people, as was true in August of 2017 on the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and essentially giving them a pass as “good people.” This is the party. This is the Republican Party, the very party that led the witch hunt trial — or should I say hearing? — that took place on December 5th.

And so, when you put it all together, the serial denial of slavery — let’s be clear, the serial denial of slavery, that is absolutely responsible for how this country came to be an economic juggernaut in the 19th century because of cotton exports, which is not a secret. It is a simple fact. It was not just a Southern problem. It was embedded in both Northern institutions, in the financial sector, as well as in the larger European context. So, to deny slavery in 2024, to essentially say, “Wink wink, nod nod, it’s not that important. Let’s move on,” is precisely the mirror inverse of what Claudine Gay and those other presidents were being accused of, of somehow denying the saliency of antisemitism. But that actually isn’t true.

This is why fascism is such a threat in this moment, because it does not depend on facts. It is only about misinformation and propaganda and catering to people’s fears. And in this case, Nikki Haley is trying to compete for it. Ron DeSantis has already proven himself to have fascist tendencies, if not fascist plans, just like Trump announcing that he plans to be a dictator at least for the first day he’s in office. Trump, by the way, was mentioned in the hearing as someone who the questioners asked the presidents if they would be willing to invite to campus to prove their commitment to academic freedom. All of them said yes, of course. But this is the absurdity of the stakes of what we’re talking about. People who actually harbor neo-Nazis, people who actually deny slavery are leading a campaign so that people like me don’t get to teach the history of slavery, and presidents like Claudine Gay and Liz Magill and others don’t get to lead institutions that will be better than they have been for most of their histories.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalil Gibran Muhammad, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

When we come back, the United Nations is urging all parties in the Middle East to show restraint after a suspected Israeli drone strike killed a top Hamas official inside Lebanon, raising the risk of a regional war. We’ll speak with the Dutch Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani. Stay with us.

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