The weird racial politics of South Carolina

South Carolina, the cradle of the Confederacy, is represented by African-American Sen. Tim Scott, and has an Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley – both conservative Republicans. Yet any idea that the state is progressing on the racial conflicts that have defined much of its history took another hit on Sunday. That’s when the Haley for Governor Grassroots Advisory Committee, her grass-roots political organization, asked for and received the resignation of one of its 164 co-chairs after his statements on racial purity came to light.

Civil-rights groups and Democrats had been pressuring the Haley campaign, which initially stood by Roan Garcia-Quintana, a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens. But his defense of his beliefs didn’t work out so smoothly. In an interview last week with The State explaining his position on the board of directors of the council, Garcia-Quintana denied that he and the group are racist. The council “supports Caucasian heritage,” he said. “Is it racist to be proud of your own heritage?” he asked. “Is it racist to want to keep your own heritage pure?”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in a 2011 photo. A Haley campaign volunteer has resigned following his statements on racial purity. (Stephen Morton/Bloomberg)

It wasn’t exactly a secret that Garcia-Quintana had ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a “white nationalist hate group,” a “linear descendant” of the old White Citizens Councils formed in the 1950s and 1960s to fight school desegregation.

In a 2010 Washington Post article on a NAACP-backed report that accused white nationalist groups of trying to align themselves with the tea party movement, Garcia-Quintana talked about his council activism. “There’s a difference between being proud of where you come from and racism. We should be able to celebrate price as Europeans and Caucasians. What troubles me is it seems like if you’re not some kind of minority, you’re supposed to be ashamed of that. . . . As a tea party organizer, all I’m trying to do is to be a community organizer,” he said.

Garcia-Quintana, a naturalized citizen born in Havana, has referred to himself as a “Confederate Cuban.” He is also executive director of the anti-immigration Americans Have Had Enough Coalition, based in Mauldin, S.C., which says it stands against an “illegal alien invasion.”

A Sunday statement from Haley political adviser Tim Pearson said: “While we appreciate the support Roan has provided, we were previously unaware of some of the statements he had made, statements which do not well represent the views of the governor. There is no place for racially divisive rhetoric in the politics or governance of South Carolina, and Governor Haley has no tolerance for it.”

Haley has tried to turn Garcia-Quintana’s departure into a political advantage. She has characterized the forced, if belated, resignation as a sign that Republicans don’t tolerate intolerance, while challenging Democrats, particularly her former and perhaps future opponent, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, to disavow Democratic political operatives who have attacked her in racial terms. (Phil Bailey, who is political director of the state Senate’s Democratic Caucus, last year called Haley a “Sikh Jesus.” He was reprimanded at a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting and apologized, but not, says the Haley campaign, to her.) The governor has come in for her share of racially insensitive comments, even from members of her own party during her primary race.

This kind of racially divisive back and forth is par for the course. No, you can’t make this stuff up, and in South Carolina, you don’t have to.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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