What it means to be American

There is a stark contrast between Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal’s banal remarks and U.S. President Barack Obama’s powerful eulogy on the idea of America

June 30, 2015 02:04 am | Updated April 01, 2016 09:40 pm IST

“While Bobby Jindal defined America in the narrowest possible white, Christian frame, Barack Obama acknowledged his role and responsibility in addressing the reality of race that continues to persist in the U.S. despite progress.” Picture shows Mr. Jindal announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Presidential election.

“While Bobby Jindal defined America in the narrowest possible white, Christian frame, Barack Obama acknowledged his role and responsibility in addressing the reality of race that continues to persist in the U.S. despite progress.” Picture shows Mr. Jindal announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Presidential election.

On June 24, the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, >announced his candidacy for the President of the United States. The media reported this historic moment of the first Indian-American jumping into the fray, just as Mr. Jindal pronounced that he was “done with” describing Americans by their ethnic identity. “We are not Indian Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, rich Americans or poor Americans; we are Americans,” he said. Within minutes, twitterdom and blogosphere lit up in India and the U.S. with #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite trending. One of my favourite tweets was from Priti: “#BobbyJindalIsSoWhite that he couldn’t win Spelling Bee even if he tried.”

Jokes aside, what’s striking about >Mr. Jindal’s statement is that at best it completely denies the very idea of America: a nation made up of immigrants of all stripes, nationalities and colour (except for native Americans), not melding to some abstract notion of what it means to be American, but actively contributing to forming the identity of this nation, a salad bowl, a tapestry of different textures and hues, existing creatively and collaboratively in the best of times, and colliding and conflicting in the worst of times. At its worst, Mr. Jindal’s comments can be seen as a crass ploy to compete for the vote of right wing conservative evangelists who would rather define America in the narrowest possible white, Christian frame. A one-time Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Jindal must know better. Rather than using his innate intelligence to lift the dialogue about race and ethnicity in America, how sad it is that this well-educated American, born of Indian immigrant parents, should stoop to a simplistic version of America that has no basis in reality.

Speaking on race Compare Mr. Jindal’s banal remarks to President Barack Obama’s powerful eulogy two days later at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Squarely addressing the issue of race as he celebrated the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the slain 41-year-old African American pastor of the church and an elected politician, the President called out the reality of the deep divisions in the country that “trace back to our nation’s original sin.”

As the nation’s first African-American President, he acknowledged his role and responsibility not just to have a conversation but to have a plan of action, to address the reality of race and ethnic strife that continues to persist in the country despite huge progress. President Obama went way beyond the platitudes of race relations to get at the subtle ways that prejudice plays out in our every day life: “None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight….but may be we now realise the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realise it, so that we are guarding against not just racial slur, but we are also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.”

As I heard his words, I felt proud of my adopted country — as an Indian-American, as an Asian-American, as an American.

Just imagine if Mr. Jindal could have understood the fundamental premise of the country: that every immigrant who comes to this country actually redefines what it means to be an American, and in the process adds to the collective identity of this country. He could have spoken eloquently about the tremendous success of the Indian-American community in the U.S. and the enormous contribution it has made here, in medicine, science, policymaking, and government. He could have also addressed the fact that despite these accomplishments, the perception of Indian-Americans as the “other”, not quite American, persists and shows up in both obvious and subtle ways. It shows up when Indian-American children win national Spelling Bee Championships and are called names, and when Indian-American government officials are presumed to be foreigners, rather than representatives of the American government.

Academic studies have shown that it’s not simply the “Jamals” of the world (reference to African-Americans) but also the “Jagdishes” of the country who don’t get called back for major research positions. The reality of ethnic and racial prejudice in the country could have been articulated by Mr. Jindal as he defined his version of America as being more inclusive. Mr. Jindal could have addressed the fact that the U.S. is one of the very few countries in the world that continues to be a work in progress, and he could have celebrated that very evolving, hybrid nature of this relatively young nation is its salient strength. Then he would have elevated the tenor of the conversation about what it means to be an American in the 21st century and made me proud as a fellow Indian-American.

(Vishakha N. Desai is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President and Professor of Practice, Columbia University, President Emerita, Asia Society.)

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