Uncle Bob Jindal: Man of No Color

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The politics of color is changing in America. For people of color, the best path to success may be to become a “person of no color.”

I caution people in evaluating the apparent success of Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, the first Indian American in U.S. history to be elected governor last Saturday — in Louisiana of all places — is what I call a “man without color.”Normally, you’d describe a person “without color” as white, but even white is a color. Jindal’s a guy who seems to aspire to being totally colorless (that’s not to say bloodless, though we are talking about a professional politician here).

In the past, this sort of character might have been labeled a chameleon, but even that’s not quite Jindal.

He doesn’t change skin tone. His skin is still as dark and constant given his immigrant Hindu parents from Punjab.

But the changes are they’re on the inside, which makes the constancy of his skin tone a tool of deception.

When you see a person of color, you expect someone with similar values, views, beliefs — someone in touch with the emerging new majority. With Jindal, you get someone who very deliberately and proudly downplays his race in order to seek his own individual path. That kind of independence under certain circumstances may be commendable. But only if you happen to agree with his ideas that range from free-market health care, intelligent design instead of evolution, anti-choice and a fenced-in America.

When did Newt Gingrich die and reincarnate?

Whites, of course, regard Jindal as their Asian American Republican Catholic with impeccable Ivy League and Rhodes Scholar credentials.

And boy, are they happy to see a little friendly pigment float into their universe.
But for those in the South Asian community, the joy for Jindal has been mixed. Where’s the breakthrough for Asian Americans when the celebrant hardly acknowledges his ethnicity or doesn’t represent us?

Vijay Prashad, a professor of South Asian history at Trinity College in Hartford, described how Jindal has been portrayed in the Indian American ethnic press.

“The fact that he’s of Indian ancestry is a subject of jubilation,” said Prashad in the New York Times. “But there’s a very shallow appreciation of who he really is. Once you scratch the surface, it’s really unpleasant.” In other words, can you praise him and still hold your nose at the same time?

We have seen this before. South Asians have already had Dinesh D’Souza. Filipinos have current Fox darling Michelle Malkin. But they’re mere right-wing commentators, not elected officials.

Jindal may be the political empowerment version of the Pogo line, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.” It’s negative diversity — where the group is abandoned for individual glory.

When Jindal won, even the New York Times saw it fitting to remark how the first words from his mouth weren’t about his historic ethnic victory. It was about LSU’s defeat of Auburn earlier that day. It’s an old trick, a la “We’re all part of the same team. Just us honky-tonk footballers here!”

Is he bridge-building? Or is it an example of the sickening kind of denial that can easily be attributed to ambitious, Darwinian, “every person for himself,” success stories in our minority communities?

Perhaps it shows that immigration can be the “Great American Makeover.”

Yet we know a number of successful Asian Americans, politicians among them, who don’t forget their origins and are truly in step with the struggles of their mainstream community.

In an almost calculated way, Jindal has positioned himself away from racial politics that we know, and toward something else of his making. But how does someone get elected in Louisiana without a solid plan to address post-Katrina infrastructure and build-up?

I was almost willing to give Jindal a pass during his transition and be mildly impressed by his colorless approach. But then came the negative Los Angeles Times story on the rise of Chinese immigrants who give to Hillary Clinton. Nothing illegal.

But the implication was that this strange idea of immigrants being part of the process was somehow unhealthy if only Democrats benefit. The fact is color still matters in politics.

Maybe not to the new governor of Louisiana, whose real name, by the way, is Piyush Jindal.

He adopted the name Bobby because he liked The Brady Bunch. Now he’s created a unique modern character in Asian American political history: “Uncle Bob.”

About the Author

For almost 15 years, Emil Guillermo wrote his "Amok" column for AsianWeek, which was the largest English language Asian American newsweekly in the nation. "Amok" was considered the most widely-read column on Asian American issues in the U.S. His thoughtful and provocative social commentaries have appeared in print in the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, San Francisco Examiner, USA Today, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and in syndication throughout the country. His early columns are compiled in a book "Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective," which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000. Guillermo's journalistic career began in television and radio broadcasting. At National Public Radio, he was the first Asian American male to anchor a regularly scheduled national news broadcast when he hosted "All Things Considered" from 1989-1991. During his watch, major news broke, including the violence in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of dictatorships in Romania and Panama. From Washington, Guillermo hosted the shows that broke the news. As a television journalist, his award-winning reports and commentaries have appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS. He was a reporter in San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. After NPR, Guillermo became a press secretary and speechwriter for then Congressman Norman Mineta, the former cabinet member in the Bush and Clinton Administrations. After his Hill experience, Guillermo returned to the media, hosting his own talk show in Washington, D.C. on WRC Radio. He returned to California where he hosted talk shows in San Francisco at KSFO/KGO, and in Sacramento at KSTE/KFBK. Guillermo's columns in the ethnic press inspired a roundtable discussion program that he created, hosted, executive produced, resulting in more than 100 original half-hour programs. "NCM-TV: New California Media" was seen on PBS stations in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and throughout the state on cable. Guillermo also spent time as a newspaper reporter covering the poor and the minority communities of California's Central Valley. His writing and reporting on California's sterilization program on the poor and minorities won him statewide and national journalism awards. Guillermo, a native San Franciscan, went to Lowell High School, and graduated from Harvard College, where he was an Ivy Orator and class humorist, a distinction shared by fellow Lampoon members like James Downey (Saturday Night Live) and Conan O'Brien. Find out what he's up to at www.amok.com.