Last summer, in the wake of the savage, racially motivated attack on the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a measure to remove the contentious and controversial Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds in Columbia.
“I am proud to say that it’s a new day in South Carolina,” declared Haley, who spoke eloquently of her support for the flag’s removal and the need for the nation to move beyond its past.
It was small gesture.
A hopeful one.
An important one.
It helped to build trust and heal a broken community.
And it helped establish Haley as a leader who possessed not only the good intention but the political will to break down some of the societal barriers — even the symbolic ones — that divide Americans of different beliefs and backgrounds.
So it was fitting that Haley was selected to deliver the rebuttal to President Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday.
After all, it was Obama who had set out to become the first post-racial, post-partisan president, running on a message of hope and change when he took office seven years ago.
But the shared use of soaring post-racial rhetoric and symbolism to shape their political narratives isn’t the only thing these ideologically opposite political leaders have in common.
Haley and Obama are of the same generation, both minorities and both part of multi-racial families; as such, they each know a little something about what it’s like to make their way in modern America.
Like Obama, Haley has spoken publicly about incidents of racial discrimination and the alienation she endured in her youth.
“I remember being a child taking a test and being asked to check a box specifying my race,” Haley recalled in a speech last September.
“I didn’t check white, I didn’t check black, I checked other. We were others. We were different.”
And like Obama, being different was not an impediment on her road to success.
The daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, Haley is the first Indian-American and the first female to serve as governor of the majority white and largely conservative Palmetto State — proof, she says, that “there truly is a new South, ... perhaps most especially in its attitudes towards race.”
Haley’s efforts to help remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds are a tangible example of how she as the leader of her state has personally pursued efforts to improve relations between the races.
The peaceful community response after the Charleston atrocity is evidence of her effectiveness.
And that is where the parallels with Obama begin to fade.
At the twilight of Obama’s presidency, race relations in America are far worse than they were when it began.
According to a Rasmussen poll taken in September, only 20 percent of likely U.S. voters believe the president has brought Americans of different races together; 47 percent think Obama has instead driven the races further apart.
That’s likely because the president rarely misses an opportunity to sow discord among his fellow Americans.
Unlike the president, Haley has used her time in office to reinforce her belief that discord — racial, political or otherwise — is a force as destructive as injustice.
She echoed this sentiment in her remarks Tuesday night, even making veiled criticisms of members of her own party:
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
Obama, too, after pointedly attacking political opponents, spoke of the need for Americans to rise to the call of their better nature.
Resurrecting some of his long-neglected optimism, he reminded Americans to see themselves “not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed.”
But his words rang hollow after seven years doing exactly the opposite. A constant framework of his rhetoric has been that those who agree with him are reasonable but those who don’t are people who want to invade every country; deny healthcare to the poor; and see children die from gun violence. When Obama casts half country this way, it is not surprising that polarization results.
Both Haley and Obama called on Americans to move beyond our divisions, but only Haley has a record of leadership in helping to do exactly that.