Knotts calls Haley, Obama "rag-heads" on online talk show

A previous episode of the show, with Rep. Anton Gunn (center) as guest
A previous episode of the show, with Rep. Anton Gunn (center) as guest
By Logan Smith - email | bio

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A South Carolina state senator used the racist term "rag-head" to describe President Barack Obama and Indian-American gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley Thursday evening on an online talk show, one of the show's hosts has confirmed.

"We already got one rag-head in the White House, we don't need a rag-head in the governor's mansion," Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington) said on Pub Politics Live in reference to the fellow Republican's campaign for governor.

The show, held weekly at the Flying Saucer bar in Columbia's Vista area, is hosted by Senate Republican Caucus worker Wesley Donehue and his Democratic counterpart, Phil Bailey.  Bailey said Knotts unexpectedly appeared on the show Thursday evening, and was invited to stay.

"Rag-head" is a racist epithet which usually refers to Middle Easterners and Sikhs who traditionally wear turbans. Haley (R-Lexington) was raised by Sikh immigrants, but converted to Methodism when she was 24.

"Jake Knotts represents all that is wrong with South Carolina politics," Haley spokesman Tim Pearson responded after learning of the comment. "He's an embarrassment to our state and to the Republican Party. South Carolina is so much better than this, and the people of our state will make that quite clear next Tuesday."

Knotts downplayed the comment when contacted for an explanation, saying his use of the offensive term was intended to be "lighthearted."

"My 'rag-head' comments about Obama and Haley were intended in jest," Knotts said in a statement. "Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like [the] local political version of Saturday Night Live, which is actually where the joke came from."  A search of Saturday Night Live transcripts did not show any comments similar to Sen. Knotts' use of the slur.

Knotts also offered a back-handed apology to Obama and Haley: "Since my intended humorous context was lost in translation, I apologize," he continued. "I still believe Ms. Haley is pretending to be someone she is not, much as Obama did, but I apologize to both for an unintended slur."

South Carolina Democrats clearly did not accept Knotts' apology, and party leaders immediately called upon the longtime state senator to step down. "The language Senator Knotts used, and his lame excuse for an apology, are completely unacceptable," said state Democratic Party Chair Carol Fowler. "If he has any shame at all he will resign from the Senate. There should be no room in government for hate speech."

The chairwoman of the state Republican Party also condemned Knotts' use of the term, but did not call for the senator's resignation. "Sen. Knotts should apologize for his inappropriate comments, so that we can put this unfortunate incident behind us and focus on issues important to moving our state forward," said SCGOP Chair Karen Floyd.

Donehue told CNN video of Knotts' comment will be posted online Friday.

Rep. Haley is running for the Republican nomination for governor against U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved.