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Nikki Haley, Baltimore and dog-whistle rhetoric

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is getting a lot of credit, and rightly so, for calling out Donald Trump in her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night. She denounced angry, anti-immigrant rhetoric and called for the nation to welcome "properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion," a clear reference to Mr. Trump's xenophobic campaign that echoed Mr. Obama's own remarks. The combination was powerful.

But Ms. Haley also made a pair of references that are jarring to our ears in Baltimore and which echoed earlier comments she made that betrayed a real misunderstanding of what's going on here and in other cities where the Black Lives Matter movement has taken root.

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Toward the beginning of her speech, when she was rattling off a litany of the supposedly hellish conditions of America at the end of the Obama years, she included "chaotic unrest in many of our cities." She did not explicitly mention Baltimore's April riots, but we cannot imagine what else she might have been referring to. Later, in discussing the mass shooting a historic African-American church in South Carolina in which the accused shooter had expressed white supremacist views, she made an implicit contrast between the peaceful response in South Carolina and the violence that marred protests in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

"Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear," she said. "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."

Her address Tuesday built on themes from a speech she delivered to the National Press Club in September. Then, she argued that South Carolina is emblematic of a New South that has become a model of racial reconciliation, in contrast to the racial divisiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement in cities like Baltimore. "Black lives do matter," she said then, "and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore."

We are in no position to question her assessment of race relations in South Carolina, but we do take exception to her imagined view of Baltimore.

First, what happened at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the death of Freddie Gray are in no way comparable events. One appears to have been the hateful and deliberate work of a lone madman. The other represents the tragic confluence of generations of racial segregation and the war on drugs, both of which have decimated African American communities in Baltimore and many other major American cities.

Ms. Haley did a good thing in pushing for her state to take the Confederate battle flag down from the state capitol. It was an important symbolic gesture to show that her state does not in any way condone the racial intolerance displayed by the alleged murderer in Charleston. But what is so striking about the protests and eventual violence in Baltimore was the degree to which they were sparked not by an act of overt white-black racism — after all, half the officers involved in Gray's arrest were black, as were the mayor and police commissioner — but rather systemic societal issues that have gone unaddressed for decades. It is little wonder that Baltimoreans responded to his death with protests rather than prayers and hugs.

Second, Baltimore experienced two nights of chaotic unrest. It is not an omnipresent characteristic of American cities during the Obama administration. It is not broadly representative of the Black Lives Matter movement or even of the response to Freddie Gray's death. To suggest otherwise is not just untrue but the kind of dog-whistle rhetoric that's designed to stoke the fears of suburban and exurban whites about the supposed lawlessness of majority-black (and Democrat-led) cities. Ms. Haley suggested that cities are the site of race wars, places that lack "the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world." It's the kind of thing you'd expect to hear out of Richard Nixon in 1968, not a rising star of the GOP in 2016.

The reality is that since April, Baltimore has experienced a collective mortification about what happened on those two nights a week after Freddie Gray's death — and a collective desire to see them as a turning point that leads to a fairer, more just city. The riots produced a reckoning — a Justice Department probe of the police department's practices, a new police commissioner and soon a new mayor — and also a renewed commitment from community activists, thought leaders, civic institutions, philanthropists and state lawmakers. Baltimore, like may other cities, continues to struggle with violent crime, poverty, drug addiction and stunted opportunities, but it is not plagued by "chaotic unrest." Rather, it is restless as it seeks finally to address problems that have too long gone ignored. To Ms. Haley, Baltimore may be a convenient shorthand for America in decline. But to its residents, it is a place ripe for rebirth.

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