No, despite cosmetics, it’s status quo ante

After “person-of-Indian-origin” Bobby Jindal’s triumph in the race for Governor of Louisiana, some Indian-Americans declared the end of discrimination, so to speak. Unfortunately, like Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history, reports of the death of prejudice are greatly exaggerated. Racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and their ilk are alive and well in America, thank you very much.

In fact, Jindal’s case is instructive: he would never have won any election in Old South Louisiana had he persisted in being of both the wrong race (brown) and the wrong religion (Hindu). Jindal realized early on in life that although he couldn’t help his skin color, he could fix his religion. He promptly converted to far-right, anti-abortion, pro-NRA Catholicism to impress his Cajun voters.

Let us remember that Jindal lost the same election last time around, despite being a wunderkind Rhodes Scholar, who by his early 20s already headed a major department in his state. White (Cajun?) native Kathleen Blanco didn’t need a star-studded resume, just skin color, to defeat him.

Jindal has struggled mightily to distance himself from his Indian origins; in this he behaves like Bharati Mukherjee’s characters who symbolically murder their Indian selves to metamorphose, phoenix-like, into their new, all-American personae. This may be the price that America’s deceptively attractive melting pot requires of immigrants—you must “serve no foreign princes,” as the curious phrase in the citizenship papers demands.
Anyway, so much for immigrants. What about the natives? There is much excitement in the media about the strong showing of a woman—Hillary Clinton—and a black—Barack Obama—in the race for the U.S. Presidency. But are these just flashes in the pan? Is Joe Six-pack ready to vote for one of them to be the Commander-in-Chief?

It may well be more to the point to ask if Jill Six-pack is willing to vote a woman into power. The calculation in the Clinton camp seems to be that if a large majority of women can be induced to vote for someone of their gender, then Clinton will sail through. This is a plausible scenario, but there’s the example of Geraldine Ferraro: why didn’t women vote en masse for her?

As far as Barack Obama is concerned, my honest belief is that the fuss over him has been a mixture of the novelty factor and simple hypocrisy. Novelty, because he is a media-genic black candidate. Hypocrisy, because even those who would never vote for a black candidate would like to pretend that they are unprejudiced and open-minded. Obama’s star has been falling, suggesting the novelty is wearing off.

Until a woman, a non-white, a Jew, or a Hindu can be President, the glass ceiling will persist.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Hyderabad, India.

 

Yes, society is more genuinely open

As Bobby Jindal accepts congratulations on October’s election, multiculturalists and Indians in particular can feel triumph at this watershed moment of political history. Detractors who question the conservative Catholic’s “Indian-ness” are missing the point.

If Louisianans were not genuinely more open to minorities now, they would simply have elected someone else. True, Jindal did lose in the runoff in the 2003 gubernatorial race, but he seized a sizable 33 percent in the primary. His 2007 victory clearly indicates that ethnicity per se will no longer hold back a candidate, both because of greater openness on the part of conservative whites and, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, greater black voter participation.

Those suspicious of whether Jindal is an “authentic minority” are themselves placing him in a brown box labeled “What an Indian should be.” Just because most first-generation Indians have clung to traditional professions and maintained the religious beliefs of their ancestors, who’s to say that a second-generation Indian who’s already proven himself to be exceptional in social science and public service, couldn’t also believe in Jesus and hold conservative views?

It’s easy to argue that Jindal strategically severed himself from his cultural roots, and perhaps he did. But what the parents of the second-generation seem to miss is that their children are hyphenated Americans, and the divergence of their beliefs from those of their parents exemplifies the synthesis of cultures and viewpoints taking place within them. Today’s Indian-Americans aren’t melting into a pot. We’re walking a tight-rope between two worlds, balancing identities in a way our predecessors did not have to, learning bharatanatyam and taking Hindi classes, but also forming diverse social networks, founding companies, and running for political office. More and more of us are confidently breaking into what were once exclusively white domains, like the media.

Today’s press loves to ask whether being black or being a woman poses a greater obstacle to achieving the presidency. I admit: prejudice and barriers to minorities’ success still exist.

However, a unique combination of greater openness in society and the strategic positions ofHillary and Obama will carry one of them into the White House. 1) By waging brilliant pre-campaigns, they have seized huge shares of available funding while signaling to other potentially powerful candidates (such as the newly Nobelled Gore) to leave the election to them. 2) By running simultaneously, they have each transcended the position of oddities and captured the nation’s attention. They have framed the debate simply by gracefully turning the question back to us: are we, as a nation, ready to elect them?

With Jindal’s victory in the bag, multiculturalists face another big electoral test, but we have every reason to be hopeful.

Neil Dandavati is an analyst at Cornerstone Research in San Francisco.

 

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