Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is, we are informed by all the best people, insufficiently ethnic. Governor Jindal, born in Baton Rouge, is Punjabi in the sense that your average Philadelphian with a surname ending in a vowel is Italian: ancestrally, trivially. Governor Jindal’s speech, culture, mannerisms, politics, religion, habits, and affect are as far removed from Chandigarh, the north Indian city where his parents met, as they are from Bogota or Stuttgart. The governor insistently rejects the tossed salad model in favor of the melting pot: an American is an American is an American, in his view.
For his political conservatism Governor Jindal, like Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina and conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza, also Republicans of Indian origin, is savaged as an Uncle Tamas — an Indian guilty of acting white. The charge has been led by The New Republic, the former political journal turned vanity press owned by Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes, one of the whitest white men in the history of whiteness, an argyle sock of a man. One cannot delegate ethnic-purity policing to the likes of Elspeth Reeve or Gabriel Snyder, but Jeet Heer was, blessedly, ready for duty. Heer is a Canadian of Indian background. He is an expert on comic books.
His analysis is appropriately cartoonish. He argues that the Indian-Americans in his crosshairs — D’Souza especially — are racists, and adds: “Anti-black racism, I’ve often thought, is one of the more unwholesome manifestations of assimilation.” One wonders if he has ever been to India, where anti-black racism is quite common: Africans traveling in India or living there routinely are denied accommodations in hotels; the culture minister of the state of Goa recently described Nigerians (about 50,000 of whom live in India) as a “cancer,” and they are habitually blamed for India’s illegal drug trade. (Here is a sign reading: “No to Nigerians, No to drugs.”) There has been talk of mass expulsion.
Africans to one side, color-based discrimination within and between Indian communities is intense. It is the usual story of action and reaction: Governor Jindal not only stands accused of acting white, but of having an official portrait that is literally too white. Mockers on Twitter abuse him under the hash-tag #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite. The governor, asked about the portrait controversy, gave a masterly performance: “You mean I’m not white?” he asked, innocently. “I’m shocked at this revelation.”
Jindal is the product of Baton Rouge public schools, Brown, the Rhodes scholarship, the McKinsey consultancy, Capitol Hill, and any number of other influences, but the ethnicity police expect him to enter the 2016 Republican National Convention wearing a turban and performing a choreographed Bollywood number to the tune of Selfie Le Le Re. It isn’t that the governor hasn’t ever done anything that we might think of as typically Indian-American — he certainly has, having been a standout student who started a few businesses as a young man, who was admitted to both the Harvard and Yale medical schools, and who surely broke his parents’ hearts by accepting neither. It is that he is in a position that perplexes and enrages the Left: He is a minority within a minority. “The vast majority of American South Asians identify as Democrats,” sniffs Heer. How dare these American South Asians act as if they can simply follow their own hearts and their own minds?
That is how progressives say: “Mind your place, darkie.”
If you’re wondering, the word “selfie” in that Hindi tune is indeed a borrowing of the familiar English neologism, but the cultures of India are remarkably syncretic. If you go to Jindal père’s old haunts in Chandigarh, you’ll see some remarkable architecture that may not strike your eye as being “Indian,” whatever we imagine that to mean — the city’s most notable structures are the work of Le Corbusier, just as much of New Delhi is dominated by the work of Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. Perhaps it is the case that the capital of Punjab is inauthentically Punjabi by the lights of The New Republic.
Perhaps that view is too narrow.
Jindal, D’Souza, and Haley stand accused of the worst sort of heresy: being members of an ethnic minority group who neither present nor understand themselves as the white man’s victims.
Perhaps it is the case that “Dinesh D’Souza and Bobby Jindal advanced in the GOP by erasing their ethnic identities,” as The New Republic insists. Perhaps something else is at work here: India itself has in recent years been wracked by a very ugly and sometimes violent confrontation between Hindus and Christians regarding conversions, and some of that animus has found its way into the diaspora. Jindal is a Catholic convert; D’Souza, a child of Goan Catholics, wrote a book called What’s So Great about Christianity, no question mark. Governor Haley, a Methodist convert from a Sikh background, has been subjected to any number of ugly and bigoted religious attacks from her political rivals. Heer accuses her of “suppressing public references to her Sikh heritage” and complains that she is “presented by her campaign as a ‘proud Christian woman.’” Never mind that that is precisely what she is — there’s a religious principle at stake here, but neither a Hindu principle nor a Sikh one. Jindal, D’Souza, and Haley stand accused of the worst sort of heresy: being members of an ethnic minority group who neither present nor understand themselves as the white man’s victims, whose stance toward the country in which they all reside and in which two of them were born — the country they love — is not one of opposition. The Left needs neediness, and these three aren’t offering up much of that.
That’s a problem for Asian Republicans specifically, of course. Norms against racism are suspended in the case of Republicans: If you are a black woman with an R next to your name, good progressives like Ted Rall will be happy to call you a “house n—–” and to lampoon you in the crudest racial mode, just as nice liberals are happy to describe Clarence Thomas with terms of racial abuse. If black Republicans are taking it that hard, Asian-American Republicans must expect worse.
And Asian-Americans, whether of South Asian or East Asian origin, are, culturally speaking, a special case: They generally enjoy a high level of socio-economic success (Indian-Americans are the wealthiest U.S. ethnic group) and are not in in the main very enthusiastic practitioners of identity politics, regardless of their party affiliation. And for the Left, such success must never go unpunished. Democrats are working very hard to empower public institutions to discriminate against one group of Americans on racial grounds, especially when it comes to admission to elite state universities. Guess who? It would have taken more than a progressive “gentleman’s agreement” to keep Bobby Jindal out of Harvard or Yale. What about the White House?
Governor Jindal is running for president, and he is not running as an Asian-American. He is running as an American sans hyphen, and he may win or he may lose, but we can be absolutely sure that, as far as the Left is concerned, he will never be forgiven.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.