Jindal should embrace hyphenated America


Rekha Basu

Bobby Jindal is tired. Or so he says in an ad supporting his presidential candidacy. Not tired as in fatigued by the 24/7 demands on a candidate and governor. Not tired of failing schools, Obamacare or the Islamic State, all of which are noted priorities on his campaign website. In this ad, Jindal says he is “tired of hyphenated Americans.”

“We’re not Indian-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans,” Louisiana’s governor, a first-generation American born to Indian immigrant parents, tells a cheering, flag-waving crowd. “We’re all Americans.”

Jindal’s campaign didn’t produce the ad, which echoes Barack Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention before Obama was elected to the U.S Senate. (“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”) It was made by the Believe Again super PAC. But Jindal did say the lines, stressing that his parents came to America to be Americans.

It’s true, they came intending to stay. It’s also true that people who become citizens can be expected to have a longer-term investment in the nation than those just passing through. But as an Indian-American, one of those Jindal is tired of, I would hate to think he expects us all to leave our cultural heritage at the door, shed our tastes for ethnic music, fashion and food common to our ancestors, and never speak a native language, even with family. I mean, does Bobby Jindal never crave a flaky piece of lachha paratha wrapped around a buttery mound of sarson da saag? Or does being a real American demand cultivating a taste for only burgers, fries and barbecue?

What he eats is of course his business. But if his wariness about hyphenated Americans is intended to get him elected, it’s both a shame and a disservice to the public’s appreciation for diversity in a nation growing more diverse all the time. It should not be necessary in America in 2015 to cast off cultural ties to be considered legitimately American. Jindal should highlight the greatness of an America in which someone with his Indian roots, his Brown and Oxford education, his governing experience and apparently brilliant mind, has equal opportunity.

And he shouldn’t expect to have it both ways. “Jindal’s status as a conservative of color helped propel his meteoric rise in the Republican Party — from an early post in the George W. Bush administration to two terms in Congress,” The Washington Post reported. A November 2012Time magazine article called him a possible presidential candidate for 2016, noting his Indian-American background “would bring diversity to the GOP.” Jindal even made political history as the first Indian-American governor and the second Indian-American member of Congress.

Before he got tired of Indian-Americans, Jindal got money from them, in the form of campaign donations in his early runs for office. Yet The Post observed, “Many see him as a man who has spent a lifetime distancing himself from his Indian roots.” It quoted a longtime family friend upset at being asked to wear Western rather than Indian clothes to Jindal’s 2003 victory party when he won the Republican nomination for governor. She said it was on advice of his political team, which Jindal denied. Some attributed the loss of Jindal’s first race for governor to his Indian background. Before winning in 2007 and 2011, he reportedly took to wearing cowboy boots in public. He, his wife and their three children sported camouflage outfits in a Christmas card.

Sure, there’s prejudice out there. After one recent candidate event, someone messaged me to say Jindal wasn’t pictured eating meat, so he must be a Hindu! There are also bogus suspicions about his eligibility to be president, just as there were about Obama’s. But the way to deal with them isn’t by running from one’s identity, but by making no apologies for it, and letting people know you’d defend theirs just as vigorously.

That doesn’t have to mean you’d let any group own you. Some Indian-Americans were perplexed that Jindal didn’t attend last year’s event with India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New York. When Jindal’s name was mentioned, the crowd even booed. But I suspect he had good reason for not turning up. Modi has been associated with a political party known for its Hindu chauvinism and for suppressing the rights of minority religious groups. Though raised by Hindu parents, Jindal converted to Christianity while in high school and was baptized into the Catholic Church during college. He’s probably no Modi fan.

One might, however, hope that having recent roots in another country would give a leader like him a deeper understanding of immigrants’ plight. But instead of showing compassion, Jindal has voted for hardline measures against unauthorized immigrants. And he has said he’d sign a Louisiana bill requiring candidates for federal office to provide a birth certificate to get on the ballot. Baton Rouge’s Advocate called that “a signal to the lunatic fringe that Jindal is sympathetic to them.”

You don’t fight prejudice by trying to be something you’re not, or by rejecting your heritage. You do it by owning your identity without apology, and using it to highlight and celebrate the pluralism from which this country draws its strength. I’m sure Jindal has much to be tired of. Hyphenated Americans, however, should energize him.

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(c)2015 Des Moines Register

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