Memo To Nikki Haley: Hugs Won't End Racism

Violence is not the answer. Activism is.

After President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had the honor of delivering the GOP’s response.

Haley offered a pointed critique of Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. She discussed strengthening the nation’s military and lowering taxes. And she brought up Dylann Roof’s racially motivated shooting rampage at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June -- although the context was sort of weird. Not just because of what Haley said, but because of what she left out.

What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about.

Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs.

We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world. 


OK, yes: No one is going to contest that hugs are nice. It's a stretch, however, to argue that American values have made this country "free" and "great" for all citizens. In fact, South Carolina is a perfect illustration of the opposite.

Besides Roof’s massacre last year, a black teenager was brutally arrested at Spring Valley High School in Columbia; Walter Scott was shot eight times in the back by a North Charleston police officer; and the Ku Klux Klan vehemently opposed removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse following the shooting at Mother Emanuel.

And yet we did see positive change. After immense social media backlash, Ben Fields was fired by the Richland County Sheriff's Department for the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh. Michael Slager was indicted for killing #WalterScott. And Haley herself ended up pushing legislation to get the Confederate flag off the Statehouse -- thanks in no small part to activists and writers calling on authorities to #TakeItDown, culminating in Bree Newsome, a civil rights activist, climbing up the flagpole and unhooking the damn thing herself.

In the face of other racially charged incidents -- including countless seemingly pointless killings by police officers -- protesters nationwide have filled the streets to rally for justice, police accountability and the recognition of victims whose names would otherwise go unsaid. "Black Lives Matter" has become a statement heard from one end of the country to the other. 

And, yes, sometimes those marches escalated into riots. Property was burned down and stores were looted. Things like that should never happen. But it should always be an option for people to take to the streets to express frustration with an unjust system. Issues like voting rights, criminal justice reform, wage and housing equality and systemic racism are now front and center in the 2016 presidential campaign. It's ridiculous to think that would have happened if activists had simply spent the past year standing around and hugging each other.

No one can tell another human being how to peacefully grieve. No one can tell someone else that they're obligated, in the face of great injustice, to forgive instead of get angry. Riots don't heal anything, but vigils can't fix everything, either.

Fortunately, those aren't the only two options. And if America is ever to become the great country that Haley describes, it will be action, activism and a willingness to stand up for what’s right that will ultimately make it happen.