Photo by Derek Bridges
Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have both been revealing their discomfort with their own skin.
The Louisiana governor has announced that he's bidding for the GOP presidential nomination, which for him means running even further away from his Indian roots.
"I know that some believe I talk too much about my faith, but I will not be silenced," Jindal said during his announcement speech. "I will not be silenced in order to meet their expectations of political correctness. They don't seem to accept the idea that you can be both intellectual and Christian."
Jindal's Christianity has been a huge part of his political persona ever since he converted from Hinduism as a young man. He has written and spoken extensively about being a Christian.
In recent months, his attempts to cater to his religious constituents have acquired a nastier edge. Earlier this year, Jindal was in the news for patently untrue statements he made during a trip to Europe about certain places on the continent being areas where non-Muslims can't enter.
"I am explicitly saying that it is completely reasonable for nations to discriminate," he stated during a speech in London, "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."
This is especially outrageous coming from a child of immigrants whose family could have been barred from entering the United States on similarly specious grounds.
Haley's tortured relationship with her Indian-American background came out over the debate about the Confederate flag on South Carolina's Capitol grounds. Haley made news when she finally said the flag should come down, but only after avoiding the topic studiously over her entire career.
Haley deemed the flag "a symbol of history, ancestry and respect," as Eesha Pandit noted in Salon, but avoided saying that the reason some people find it "offensive" has to do with systemic racism, slavery, and violence against people of color.
Even so, this was a step forward for the South Carolina governor, considering that she initially stated that "we do know that we'll never understand what motivates" killers to perpetrate the type of carnage that Dylann Storm Roof carried out.
Race is an issue that Haley has been deliberately confused about for a long time. A story a few years ago unearthed the fact that Haley identified herself as "white" on a 2001 voter registration card.
Like Jindal, Haley has spent her career in deep avoidance about her cultural inheritance, even though she has put up with racism since she was a child. In her memoir published a few years ago, she wrote about being disqualified from a beauty pageant because she fell into no recognizable racial category. She discussed an incident when the cops were called on her parents who were simply making a purchase at a fruit stand. During her first gubernatorial campaign, South Carolina GOP state Senator Jake Knotts claimed she was a puppet controlled by a secret network of Sikhs and she received repeated hate calls.
Born a Sikh, Haley converted to Christianity in 1996. She has advertised that.
"My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make," she wrote on her campaign website. "My faith in the Lord gives me great strength on a daily basis. Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day."
"For the GOP, which has few minorities in the leadership, Nikki and Bobby play an important symbolic role," Trinity College Professor Vijay Prashad tells me. "But, as their limitations become clearer, this role is compromised. And few would be mislead to believe that they represent anything other than the worst elements of the GOP base."
In his London speech, Jindal offered some homespun wisdom.
"My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans—not Indian-Americans," Jindal said.
Jindal and Haley's efforts to appear white and Christian have a lot to do with their abysmal performance in office.
"Jindal's popularity in his own state has suffered—a recent poll has his approval at 32 percent—thanks to budget troubles and perhaps a preoccupation with playing to a national audience," CNN reports. "His refusal to raise taxes to help balance the state's books has resulted in deep cuts to popular programs and areas of government spending such as health care and education."
Jindal's gubernatorial "achievements" have in large part consisted of implementing one dubious measure after another, from allowing "intelligent design" theories in schools to lavishing corporate welfare on Duck Dynasty to keep the show in his state.
Haley has also been a disaster for her constituents.
"She's unqualified to be the governor of my birth state," wrote Jimmy Williams in a blog for U.S. News & World Report during her re-election bid. Williams cited an especially disquieting episode.
"As ABC News recently reported, seventy-six children died while under the supervision of her state's Department of Social Services," he wrote. "The death of a child is a tragedy. The deaths of seventy-six children in less than four years is an epidemic, one that happened under Nikki Haley's watch, under her leadership. That's simply unforgiveable."
Jindal and Haley have sometimes seemed positively embarrassed about their roots. A recent Washington Post story reports that Jindal's dad called a family friend to discourage her from wearing Indian dress to a 2003 election party.
"He said that's what his political advisers were saying," Sumir Chehl, who ignored the request, told the paper. "It gave me the feeling that he was trying to disassociate from his heritage." Chehl also said that attendees were dissuaded from wearing Indian dress for Jindal's 2008 inauguration.
Jindal's contempt for his community has been reciprocated on social media.
"#BobbyJindal is so white he has trouble pronouncing #Jindal #bobbyjindalissowhite," prominent Indian-American comedian Aasif Mandvi tweeted.
"Bobby Jindal is so white, he's looking for a minority running mate 'to add diversity to the ticket,' " Hari Kondabolu, another Indian-American comic, tweeted.
This mutual disdain is not surprising.
"Bobby and Nikki represent the ability of the GOP to have minority leaders," Prashad says. "They are, of course, representatives of a certain sort—with minority backgrounds (both from India), but with minimal programmatic relations to the issues of minority communities."
Jindal and Haley have engaged in a lifelong calculation that their abandonment of their heritage will yield them rich political dividends. But with their dismal track records in office on display, that strategy may finally be reaching a dead end.