The Politics of Difference

by Jeremy Alford

While Louisiana has seen isolated moments of racial friction over Barack Obama’s election, the tenure of Bobby Jindal has been remarkably quiet. Philadelphia’s Congress Hall is no stranger to historic moments of awkwardness involving presidential power. George Washington, a man seemingly born proud, was inaugurated there before his second term in 1793. Four years later, it was the chosen place for the inauguration of John Adams, a man seemingly born bitter. When the ceremony ended, Adams waited for Washington to exit the House chamber, possibly as a symbolic gesture of the Old Guard giving way to the new. But neither Washington nor Adams budged. Not surprisingly, the cold stare of the battle-hardened general won out, and Adams vacated the chamber first with head bowed.

A similar political tit-for-tat transpired in the northwest corner of Independence Square last week, although it wasn’t as evident as the classic Washington-Adams staredown. President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, had invited every U.S. governor to Congress Hall to discuss the nation’s precarious fiscal situation. Just below the surface, the gathering also offered a preview of the potential GOP challengers to Obama in 2012. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, most recently the Republicans’ choice for vice president, was there, as was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. It was a bold move for the commander-in-chief-to-be to bring such folks into the discussion.

But it was Obama’s handshake with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another GOP darling, that provided the picture-perfect moment. The image of America’s first black president shaking hands with the nation’s first elected Indian-American governor spoke volumes about how far this nation has come. They are arguably among the most powerful men of color to ever sit in Congress Hall in an official capacity. Yet, despite their accomplishments, race and ethnicity still play a divisive role in American politics. Nothing makes a politician, reporter or voter stammer more than the topics of race and ethnicity, as if choosing the correct words is the difference between tolerance and intolerance, regardless of intent.

As Obama and Jindal discussed hurricane recovery and other issues last week, the mother of two students from Pineville Junior High School in central Louisiana was raising hell because the school’s principal barred her children from wearing jackets featuring a photo of the president-elect. The principal told reporters it had more to do with the school’s dress code than anything else, even though students at the affiliated high school were allowed to wear similar jackets. The dust-up could have been much ado about nothing, but the fact that it hit the national wires with a Southern accent made it a genuine controversy.

It was but the latest in a long line of racially charged moments in Louisiana brought about by a black man running for president. From offensive T-shirts and banners displayed at LSU football games to appalling jokes whispered at coffee shops to the way Obama’s endorsements of white candidates were trumpeted on signs in tony suburban neighborhoods, the way some Louisianans have reacted to Obama’s candidacy and win has been less than honorable.

Yet Jindal, who is arguably less white than Obama, who is the son of a black Kenyan father and Kansas-born white mother, has barely experienced any of the ethnic derision heaped upon Obama — and if he has, it has remained a closely guarded secret. In fact, the national media and observers from other states appeared more surprised than those in Louisiana last year when an Indian-American Republican was elected to a state so steeped in racial divides. Could it be that Louisiana voters are willing to accept a man of color, as long as he’s not black? Could it be that Louisiana voters, many of whom were reared among Creoles and other proud blends of race, don’t see color in the voting booth? The answer won’t be found by asking a single question, or even two, and the complete picture will only begin to emerge as Jindal’s political career continues to unfold.

One immediate explanation is that Jindal has presented himself to Louisiana voters as one of their own. Although born a Hindu named Piyush, he changed his name to Bobby during childhood and eventually embraced Catholicism. He campaigned in camouflage, talked about duck hunting and once even “posed for a picture with [a] man sporting a Confederate flag tattoo,” according to a New York Times story. Bob Mann, a veteran of Louisiana politics and author of books about civil rights, says Jindal has taken care to craft such an image. “Jindal has not only avoided race, but he has anglicized himself. He has run, essentially, as a white, Anglo-Saxon male and has identified himself with the culture of Louisiana,” says Mann. “I think it’s wrong to say that Louisiana voted for an Indian-American as governor because he didn’t really run as one. The biggest difference between him and Obama is Obama has embraced his heritage and Jindal has rewritten his.”

In certain respects, whether consciously or not, Jindal has lifted a few pages from the playbook of the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, a portly, outspoken politician of Chinese heritage who donned a cowboy hat, rode horses and embraced the ways of the old courthouse gang. Lee recognized there was a necessary mold and poured himself into it, leaning on his unique heritage only when necessary, often in the form of self-deprecating humor. Jindal hasn’t been as bold.

State Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat from Bogalusa, where remnants of the Ku Klux Klan have recently sprouted, believes Jindal’s campaign style has been one of the keys to his success in bridging racial gaps. Just in the past two weeks, Jindal has held town hall meetings in Robert, Woodworth, Vacherie, Jackson and Arcadia. His entire first year in office has been filled with similar stops in other rural areas, where he takes his message directly to voters, mostly working-class folks. “Jindal has the energy and talent to relate to blue-collar workers and residents of rural areas,” says Nevers. “He continues to be very visible and has a platform that all people can identify with. I think being able to ask him questions in person has helped Louisiana’s voters, and all of these town hall meetings are paying dividends for him and the state.”

Jindal also inoculated himself against traditional racial issues early on by developing firm relationships with the fundamentalist and evangelical churches of north Louisiana. He had to sell himself as a Christian, just as former Gov. Edwin Edwards did in the 1970s to overcome stereotypes of his Cajun ancestry. It’s a solid formula that only a skilled politician could pull off. It’s also a formula that’s making national Republicans swoon. It doesn’t hurt that Jindal would bring much-needed ethnicity to the GOP, although the faithful are shy about saying that in public. “I think there is an appeal to Bobby Jindal because he brings a fresh face to the party,” says Brent Littlefield, a D.C.-based Republican strategist. “But I think his popularity and the interest in him are truly based on conservative policies and accomplishments, not his ethnicity. He is an eloquent spokesperson for the party.”

That’s similar to what Democrats were saying about Obama less than a year ago and may explain why Jindal is now being called the “Republican Obama.” The comparison works on several levels, as both men have important roles to play in the nation’s ever-evolving debate over race and politics.

Last week, the day after the news broke about the Obama jackets in Pineville, state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek posted a heartfelt message on his blog: “I encourage teachers, school leaders, families and community leaders to facilitate healthy, productive conversations about President-elect Obama and what his election means for our country, especially for African-Americans. If we, as adults, help young people talk about this event in a constructive, non-threatening way without limiting or down-playing their feelings, enthusiasm or anxiety, we can continue building bridges that will connect them to a future where prejudice in this country has not only diminished, but has disappeared.”

It seems Pastorek could have written a similar post about Jindal, even though the governor has been less willing than Obama to embrace his cultural uniqueness and expound upon his ethnicity in the mainstream media. If the body politic in Louisiana — and America — can both uphold and challenge racism, then Jindal has a responsibility to make an impact, or at least try, with his own personal story. It’s an unparalleled tale about a son of immigrants, and we in Louisiana know it well by now. But it would be even more powerful coming from Jindal, in detail, regardless of the political ramifications it might carry. For this reason alone, regardless of how he proceeds, Jindal has already cemented his chapter in Louisiana’s history book — and there’s little doubt he’s anxious to do the same on the national stage. How he gets there is up to him.