Governor Bobby Jindal's announcement last week that he is running for President prompted a string of critical responses from progressive South Asians and Asian Americans who are skeptical and even ashamed of him for many reasons, not the least of which are his apparent denials of his culture, heritage, and racial identity. Given our recent national conversations on the fluidity of racial identity sparked by Rachel Dolezal, the questions around whether Governor Jindal is Indian enough or whether he has assimilated into Whiteness are timely ones that merit further discussion (and some well-intentioned humor, thanks to #BobbyJindalisSoWhite and #Jindian, the comedic creations of Hari Kondabolu and Aasif Mandvi). Governor Jindal's racial identity is not the best litmus test or standard to assess his candidacy for President. Instead, we should take a look at his viewpoints, policies and rhetoric, which have been harmful and divisive, especially with respect to immigrants and communities of color.
Recently, Governor Jindal has been speaking about immigrant identity and assimilation, and using dangerous racially coded language to do so. For example, he has exhorted immigrants to give up their hyphenated identities in favor of a singular "American" one. He has even gone so far as to signal his approval of policies that discriminate against those who establish what he says are "separate cultures." In his words: "...I am explicitly saying that it is completely reasonable for nations to discriminate between allowing people into their country who want to embrace their culture, or allowing people into their country who want to destroy their culture, or establish a separate culture within." Ironically, Governor Jindal continually references his own immigrant story as the point of entry to signal approval of policies that would exclude and diminish the rights of immigrant communities.
This racially coded language is divisive. In it are echoes of the exclusionary immigration policies from the turn of the twentieth century, which sought to limit the entry of Asian migrants - labeled as the "yellow peril" or the "brown horde"- and who were perceived as outsiders intent upon corrupting the purity of white, Christian America with their customs, faiths and languages. Governor Jindal's remarks also sanction government intervention and discrimination if immigrants celebrate their culture, ethnicity or faith in a manner that is deemed to be "destructive or separate", concepts that are broad and vague. Under this line of thinking, even the thriving Little Indias around the country - vibrant small business corridors and immigrant enclaves in Jackson Heights, Artesia, Devon Avenue, or Jersey City - might be classified as examples of "separate cultures within" the United States. Given these viewpoints on immigrant communities, it is not entirely surprising that when he was a congressional representative, Jindal co-sponsored the English Language Unity Act in 2007. English-only laws such as this one (which did not pass) open the door to cutting funding for English as a Second Language classes and for limiting the legal rights of non-English speakers to receive interpreters and translated documents.
But it is "non-assimilationist Muslims" who are the usual targets of Governor Jindal's "separate cultures" argument. In London, he created an international controversy by referring to no-go zones of Muslim communities, when he said: "In the West, non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of Sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home." He also intimated that a similar trend could occur in the United States, further fanning the fears that lead to Islamophobia around our nation.
Governor Jindal's assimilation narrative, one that is rooted in exclusion and separateness, is tone-deaf and out of touch with where we are headed as a nation. Today, cities are establishing immigrant affairs offices to serve their diversifying populations, creating public school holidays in observance of Eid and Lunar New Year, and providing interpreters for limited English proficient speakers. Governor Jindal's viewpoints do not align with the country we are choosing to become.
There are additional troubling policies on Governor Jindal's record. PBS News Hour has published a helpful top ten list of Governor Jindal's policy stances, which reveal his viewpoints on issues ranging from reproductive rights (the state's abortion policies resulted in the closure of three of the state's five abortion clinics) to education (the state has been sued by the federal government for implementing policies that allegedly impede desegregation orders) to health care (Jindal refused to accept federal funding for Medicaid programs, threatening to leave nearly 250,000 poor Louisiana residents without access to health insurance). In a state with a history of segregation and structural racism, compounded by high rates of poverty and unemployment, and haunted by the ongoing impact of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana residents have not been satisfied with Governor Jindal's policies and leadership. A recent statewide poll found that Governor Jindal has a 63 percent disapproval rate.
Moreover, Governor Jindal has not taken positive public action about fundamental racial justice issues facing Black and Brown communities in his state, ranging from the labor violations of Indian guestworkers on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to the rights of undocumented immigrants (Louisiana is one of the states that joined the litigation to block the President's executive order on immigration) to the removal of the Confederate flag from Louisiana license plates despite the recent pattern of many southern states.
If he hopes to win the attention and votes of the growing numbers of Asian, Latino and Black voters who are steadily comprising the majority population in major cities as well as a larger proportion of the new American electorate, Governor Jindal's policy stances and rhetoric must demonstrate an understanding of and alignment with their concerns and priorities. Subtle references to his brown-ness with campaign slogans like Tanned, Rested and Ready will not be enough.
Deepa Iyer is Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion (affiliation for identification purposes only; this post does not reflect CSI's viewpoints). Iyer's first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, will be published in November 2015.