Opinion: Nikki Haley’s big mistake

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Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

After several strong showings in the Republican primary debates, Nikki Haley is now facing the biggest controversy thus far in her effort to unseat former President Donald Trump as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

While Haley has already been doing damage control, her response to a simple question in New Hampshire this week struck at the heart of a decades-long power struggle over our nation’s history.

When asked during a town hall in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Wednesday what the cause of the Civil War was, Haley managed to answer the question without once mentioning the issue of slavery.

Instead, she framed the Civil War as a dispute over “how government was going to run” and “the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” She went on to say: “I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. I will always stand by the fact that I think the government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people.”

When the attendee replied in astonishment that she didn’t say slavery, Haley gruffly responded, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”

Haley has already tried to minimize the damage, clarifying on Thursday that “of course the Civil War was about slavery.”

Although some are calling the encounter a “gaffe,” Haley has previously framed the Civil War as a disagreement between “tradition” and “change” without mentioning slavery.

Her response in New Hampshire was a significant mistake that — intentional or not — taps into a longstanding effort on the right to rewrite history. Too often, there have been systematic efforts to push aside the archival-based findings that historians have produced over the past half century, documenting the ways that slavery and racism have continually played a formative role in American history.

By refusing to confront the evidence, and by attacking efforts to teach American history accurately, conservatives have been pushing a white-washed version of events that had been widely taught in classrooms before the 1960s.

Certainly, this had been the case with the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, which depicted the Confederacy in nostalgic and heroic terms, treating the war as a battle over abstract ideas such as state’s rights rather than a conflict almost every major, credible historian today agrees was about slavery at its core.

The same narratives were also used to describe Reconstruction, with a group of scholars known as the “Dunning School” reinterpreting history to sympathize with White Southerners while casting Radical Republicans who pushed for the enfranchisement of Black Americans as vindictive and destructive. Their work also portrayed freed men and women in derogatory terms, claiming that they were incapable of handling new rights.

Historian Eric Foner and others spent their careers shattering the Dunning School of Reconstruction to demonstrate the transformative potential of the era and the way in which Black Americans were active participants at the center of the effort to achieve racial justice.

In his 1988 book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” Foner writes that instead of the Dunning School’s “description of the period as a ‘tragic era’ of rampant misgovernment,” Reconstruction was eventually understood as “a time of extraordinary social and political progress for blacks.”

In more recent years, a similar debate has surrounded the Confederate Flag. Indeed, Haley was widely praised for signing legislation to take down a Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina State House after a white supremacist murdered nine members of a historically Black church in the state in 2015. But prior to that, Haley had used Lost Cause logic to keep the flag in place, arguing that it was not racist, but a symbol of tradition.

Benjamin Jealous, then-president of the NAACP, said in 2011: “Perhaps one of the most perplexing examples of the contradictions of this moment in history is that Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s first governor of color continues to fly the Confederate flag in front of her state’s capitol.”

These same arguments drove the efforts to bring down Confederate monuments. While defenders of the monuments insisted they were just objects to commemorate history and Southern pride, historians such as Karen Cox corrected the record by reminding readers that most of these monuments were put into place in the early 20th century as symbols of resistance to civil rights for Black Americans.

“For more than a century,” she wrote, “white southerners have gathered at these memorial sites to recall the Confederate past and reassert their commitment to the values of their ancestors, the very same values that resulted in a war to defend slavery, as well as the right to expand the institution.”

The flag and monument debates are just the tip of the iceberg. The efforts to reverse historical research and knowledge have been most vociferous in a number of red states where governors and their allies have attempted to legislate school curricula to strip away key elements of Black and American history. Under the mantra of being anti-woke, Republicans such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have been fighting tooth and nail to undercut massive bodies of research.

While there have been legitimate debates and competing understandings of the particular ways that race has influenced key moments in American history, there is a general agreement on the profound and ongoing influence of “White racism,” as President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission called it in the landmark 1968 report.

Since the 1960s, historians have demonstrated again and again the constitutive role preserving and protecting racial inequality has had on this country. There was no other point more dramatic, and more devastating, than when Southerners went to war to protect the institution of slavery.

This research has not been the result of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) frameworks, critical race theory, or some “progressive cabal,” but the product of painstaking archival research, peer reviewed and vigorously debated by some of the nation’s finest scholars.

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Almost 60 years ago, during Freedom Summer, when Black and White college students flooded Mississippi to fight for racial justice, education was central to their mission. Working with local members of civil rights organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, volunteers established Freedom Schools throughout the state to provide a better education for young Black Mississippians. Central to the curricula was the teaching of Black history that had been purposely excluded from classrooms in most places in the Deep South.

Today, the fierce response to Haley’s statement comes at a moment when many educators are extraordinarily frustrated and upset by the right’s efforts to erase and revise US history. Though her answer this week might very well have been a slip-up, many observers understandably fear that Haley was in fact trying to tap into a reactionary sentiment that has refused to confront the reality of our past, contributing to one of biggest obstacles that prevents the country from fulfilling its promise of equality.  

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Opinion: Nikki Haley’s big mistake

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