On Thursday, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina will be recognized by the Harvard Foundation as someone who has positively contributed to intercultural and race relations. Normally, I would not so much as blink an eye at the thought of a prominent political figure of color receiving such an honor (particularly when people of color make up such a small proportion of America’s elected officials). But in this case, I did blink. I blinked hard.
Governor Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley is, like me, an Indian American. Her family, like much of mine, immigrated from Punjab, India. But Governor Haley has simultaneously toed the line between talking about this aspect of her identity and shying away from it. Politically, race seems to be a tough issue for Haley, whose advisers defended a white supremacist campaign volunteer before eventually asking for his resignation under public pressure.
In fact, public pressure seems to be the key driver of how Governor Haley answers questions about race. After all, in 2014, Governor Haley refused to answer a question about her position on the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse, even implying that it was an insignificant issue. This evening, Haley will receive recognition for her supposedly valiant efforts to tackle this very issue.
But if there is one thing about which Governor Haley has never wavered, it’s her policies. During her tenure as governor, she has rejected a Medicaid expansion plan that would have covered hundreds of thousands of low-income people. She has vetoed money for education that would have helped children across South Carolina, including the 39 percent of Latino kids and 43 percent of African-American kids who live in poverty in her state. She has supported voter ID laws so restrictive that the Department of Justice blocked a state voting law for the first time since 1994 on the grounds that it would create “significant racial disparities.”
The Harvard Foundation’s mandate is to "improve relations among racial and ethnic groups within the University and to enhance the quality of our common life." In the past, the Foundation has granted awards to the likes of Ban-Ki Moon, Malala Yousafzai, and Desmond Tutu.
So where does recognizing someone like Governor Haley fit in? What “relations” will it improve to have Harvard students of color sit at a table with a woman who, until recently, thought it was permissible for the Confederate flag to fly in her state? How will it “enhance our common life” to listen to a governor who used her speech after the Charleston tragedy to criticize Black Lives Matter protestors? What good will it do for the community of color at Harvard to honor a governor whose policies have hurt other communities of color?
I do not know what Governor Haley’s true views on race are, but I do know that her policies have made life tangibly worse for people of color in her state. I know that her actions have been in direct contradiction to the values that the Harvard Foundation claims to embody.
The recognition that will be given Thursday is a one-time event, created specifically for Governor Haley in honor of her recent turnabout on the issue of the Confederate flag. If the Foundation truly believes that this was a monumental moment in American race relations, why not honor activist Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole herself and faced arrest in order to take down that symbol of hatred? If the goal is to honor people who have contributed positively to intercultural and race relations, why not honor any number of activists and policymakers across the country working every single day to stop police brutality, reform our immigration system, or make our schools and universities more inclusive? Why honor someone who has spent most of her time doing the opposite?
At 6:00 p.m., Governor Haley will be recognized by an organization that purports to support Harvard students of color. And two hours earlier, those same students and their allies will have the opportunity to attend a discussion with Governor Haley at the Phillips Brooks House—a chance to address the embodiment of the obstacles many in our community still face. I’ll be there. I hope you’ll join me.
Aaron M. Mukerjee '16 is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.
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