Nikki Haley: The Charleston killer hijacked the meaning of the Confederate flag

More than two million views for this clip this afternoon on Twitter. She’s getting a bad rap for it abetted by the framing of the tweet below, which comes from — ta da — Media Matters. Watch, then we’ll discuss.

People on social media are piling on her for suggesting that a racist atrocity somehow “hijacked” the meaning of a flag that was carried into battle against the United States by a regime founded to protect its citizens’ prerogative to commit racist atrocities. The Charleston killer knew what that flag meant to black Americans, which is why he embraced it. But Haley’s point, then and now, was that over time many white southerners had come to embrace the flag for more innocuous reasons, as a symbol of southern culture generally. Her point about “hijacking” is that the murders reasserted the flag’s meaning as a symbol of racist violence. Well-meaning whites couldn’t properly look at it the same way afterward as an anodyne symbol of the south, drained of its history.

She’s under no illusions about the flag’s heritage. You know how I know that? Because she talked about it on the day she called for removing the flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.

On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history. We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives — in the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don’t need reminders. In spite of last week’s tragedy, we have come a long ways since those days and have much to be proud of, but there’s more we can do.

That brings me to the subject of the Confederate flag that flies on the State house grounds. For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry.

The hate filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and, in many ways, revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate, nor is it racism.

At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. As a state we can survive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here. We respect freedom of expression, and that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way.

She didn’t dwell on the flag’s heritage. She spoke about it somewhat elliptically. This isn’t what a scrupulously woke speech about South Carolina’s history would sound like. But Haley’s a politician and she was taking a political risk by doing what she thought was right by calling for the flag’s removal without knowing if it would be popular, so she chose her words carefully to massage the point of impact. The word “hijack” in today’s clip isn’t quite right because it implies that the flag’s “true” meaning is the nice cuddly one about southern pride that was adopted belatedly by whites, and that meaning was somehow wrenched away by the shooter. It would have been better to say, I think, that the massacre was a wake-up call to whites that the flag’s original meaning abides, not just to blacks but to some racist whites. And so the proper thing to do, as a gesture of reconciliation to black Americans and as proof that most whites want no part of that meaning, was to get it off the statehouse grounds. She wasn’t trying to whitewash (no pun intended) the flag’s history.

She’s also getting dinged for what she says later in the clip about “the media” swooping into South Carolina and trying to turn the massacre into a story about race. It … was a story about race, right? That’s not some manufactured media narrative. The killer gunned down innocent people because he hoped to start a race war. If you’re looking to blame someone for racializing a mass murder committed in the name of white supremacy, look to the man with his finger on the trigger.

Klein’s criticism is in good faith but I think Haley’s getting a bad rap here too. As I understand her in the clip, she’s not saying that the media was wrong to want a national conversation about race after the shooting. She’s saying they were wrong to want a national conversation about race after the shooting while the bodies were still warm. She’s complaining about them drilling down on the subject immediately, knowing how divisive it is, at a moment when South Carolina needed racial unity and she was doing her best to deliver it. She explicitly says near the end of the clip that it was appropriate to have that debate (and debates about gun control, etc) after the funerals. The woke reply to that would be that it does no one any good to sweep racism under the rug, however temporarily, particularly when it just left nine people dead on the floor of a church. That’s a moment to stare it squarely in the face, as the media did. But Haley would say, I assume, that as a governor who’d just had a fraught moment thrust upon her, she worried about social harmony first. If the racial significance of the murder could be addressed a few days later, after people of both races had had time to grieve and reflect, better to do it then.

And she was true to her word. The murders happened on June 17, 2015. It wasn’t even a week later that she delivered the remarks above and called for the flag to be removed from the statehouse grounds.

Now c’mon. Can’t we go back to dogging her for her alleged sins against Trumpism and/or her alleged sellout to Trumpism? Those topics are much more fun.