Bobby Jindal Capitalizes on His Role at Center of Assimilation Debate
Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American governor in the U.S., on Tuesday advertised a campaign T-shirt that has the words “Tanned. Rested. Ready” printed on the front. In case the innuendo wasn’t clear, Jindal tweeted: “The liberal media said, ‘There’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal,’ so we made shirts to mock them.”
The shirt was the latest volley in a long week of debate over how to talk about Jindal’s ties, or lack of ties, to his Indian heritage. During his campaign announcement speech on Wednesday, Jindal joked that he was “tanned, rested, and ready,” but only mentioned the word “Indian” once, when he talked about what America is not.
“I’m done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans,” Jindal said. “We are not Indian-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans. We are all Americans.” It was nothing new from someone who called for “the end of race” in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
Jindal's T-shirt tweet referred to a Washington Post story published June 23 about the Jindal family’s assimilation into southern, American culture, including his parents’ commitment to raising him and his siblings as Americans. The Post also reported that the Jindal team discouraged his friends from wearing traditional Indian dress to his inauguration (Jindal denied that). The most controversial quote in the story—the one the candidate would later highlight‚came from Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is writing a book on Jindal.
The backlash on the right was immediate. “On behalf of white people everywhere, I apologize to Bobby Jindal,” wrote Daily Caller blogger Jim Treacher. “So glad Pearson Cross is available to tell us who counts as Indian,” tweeted Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at the National Review and a Bloomberg View columnist.
On Wednesday, the New Republic re-upped a post from February about Dinesh D’Souza, another Indian-American conservative, and his rhetoric on black Americans. The piece argues that D’Souza's career, along with those of Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, “carry an implicit message: Racial minorities can advance in the GOP by erasing their ethnic identity and/or attacking other minorities.” That prompted this tweet from the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg:
Conservatives say the changes Jindal has made over the years—including changing his name from Piyush to Bobby as a child and converting from Hinduism to Catholicism as a teenager—are assimilation, not an effort to disown his heritage. “There’s a word for what happened to Jindal … It’s called ‘assimilation,’ which was once a good thing,” Noemie Emery wrote at the Weekly Standard. “It is what happens when immigrants and their children lose some of the marks of their country of origin and become part of the overall national culture, which they also change by their presence in it.”
But oftentimes, the left’s criticism of Jindal’s “Indian-ness” stems from his definition of assimilation, specifically his rejection of the idea of hyphenated Americans. In January, during an appearance on MSNBC, Arsalan Iftikhar of ThatMuslimGuy.com said Jindal was “trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin as he runs to the right in a presidential bid.” That comment, plus the viral reaction to an unofficial portrait of Jindal depicting his skin tone several shades too light, prompted Jindal spokesman Michael Reed to release a statement saying that liberals “are fixated on race.” (In response to the Washington Post story, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin released a similar statement. “Governor Jindal is proud of his heritage,” he said. “He believes we need to stop fixating on race and hyphenated Americans. We are all Americans.”)
Iftikhar’s comment was made during a conversation about Jindal’s claim during a speech in London earlier that month that there are “no-go zones” in Europe, or places where non-Muslims are afraid to go because they are controlled by Muslims who have refused to assimilate. That claim turned out to be false, but Jindal refused to apologize for it. During his announcement speech he again brought up the idea that there are communities of immigrants to refuse to fully join American culture.
“We cannot allow people to immigrate to this country so that they can use our freedoms to undermine our freedoms,” he said Wednesday. “That's exactly what has happened in Europe, where they have second and third generations of immigrants who refuse to embrace the values and culture of the countries they have moved into.”
Jindal’s view of assimilation, especially in regard to his “no-go zone” theory, fits two conservative threads—that liberals are too focused on race, and that liberals refuse to address the threat of radical Islamic terrorism because of political correctness. This is what liberals criticize, especially when Jindal uses anti-Muslim rhetoric.
But he is also, like most first- and second-generation Americans, making personal choices about what parts of his culture he identifies with and, like most politicians, which ones will help him get elected.