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Nikki Haley’s campaign opened with an appeal to race. Some Indian Americans say it won’t work.

“I think people can see through her much better now than ever before,” one expert said.
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Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has long rejected the idea that the U.S. is a racist country. But when it came time to announce her 2024 candidacy for president on Tuesday, she began by sharing her identity — and a memory of her hometown.   

“The railroad tracks divided the town by race,” she said of Bamberg, South Carolina. “I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not white, I was different.” 

Haley’s announcement makes her the first Republican opponent of former President Donald Trump, whose administration she spent two years in as ambassador to the United Nations. 

But if Haley, born Nimrata Randhawa to Sikh Punjabi parents, is trying to make inroads with Indian Americans, experts say it’s not working. 

She doesn’t represent the community, said Varun Nikore, executive director of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a nonprofit group representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In fact, Nikore said, “there’s a multitude of issues where she specifically and the Republican Party are diametrically opposed to where AAPIs are.” 

Haley did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

Some South Asians say Haley’s on-and-off acknowledgment of her ethnic background is a routine they’re familiar with. Nikore, who has followed Haley’s career since the beginning, says her use of her racial identity often goes hand-in-hand with perpetuating the model minority myth, taking anti-immigration stances and opposing comprehensive education about race in the U.S. 

“I think people can see through her much better now than ever before,” Nikore said. “So she can try to talk about her immigrant background, I think it’s going to fall flat.”

But as Asian Americans become more politically active, 2024 presidential candidates across the board will be looking their way, he said. 

“Our level of political sophistication has grown by leaps and bounds,” Nikore said. “And that is evidenced by turnout rates and by level of civic engagement at the local level all the way to the top.”

According to the 2022 Asian American voter survey, only 15% of Indian American voters are decidedly Republican. Fifty-six percent are Democratic, and 19% are independent. Nikore says he sees Haley’s appeal to some older, first-generation Indian Americans, but he doesn’t foresee the community as a whole getting behind her. 

One South Asian and Democratic commentator agreed. “I think I speak for a whole lot of people in saying that Nikki Haley’s values are not the values of the Indian American community,” Kaivan Shroff tweeted. “She is a deeply cynical and unkind person. Her candidacy is not the kind of representation we should celebrate.”

An overwhelmingly Democratic constituency with a large immigrant population, Asian Americans are concerned about racism, health care access, gun control and the environment, according to the 2022 survey. Indian Americans prioritize gun control more than any other ethnic group, and it’s a policy position that Haley has firmly opposed. 

“These are areas where the Republican Party and conservatives have sort of laid their stake on the future of their movement: guns and reproductive rights,” Nikore said. “They are going to find, to their demise, they are on the wrong side of today and the wrong side of history.”

Neil Makhija, executive director of the voter-mobilization nonprofit Indian American Impact, said the Biden administration had engaged South Asian American voters in a way Republicans have never done. On Haley’s presidential bid, he said, “I think it will be hard for Republicans to put a dent in our community’s support, unless they reverse course on the nativism and xenophobia that Trump unleashed.”

Nikore says Haley can’t be separated from the racist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant stances of the modern Republican Party. As U.N. ambassador, Haley defended Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. from some Muslim-majority nations in 2017, saying, “It’s not a Muslim ban.”

Using alarmist sentiments to scapegoat immigrants has become a bedrock of conservatism, Nikore said, adding that Haley’s refusal to stand against that while simultaneously touting her own background will turn voters off. 

“If you don’t disavow the most extremist elements in your own party and call out folks on their white supremacist, racist words and actions, you are in fact complicit,” he said. “She made choices that I think she’s going to have to live with for the rest of her political career.”