Today I battled with “identity politics” and I think I lost. Thoughts?

 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/21/us/nationalspecial/21louisiana.html?hp

Bobby Jindal(R-LA) was elected as governor in the state of Louisiana. Whoosh. Open the floodgates. “Son of immigrants”, “First ever non-white governor”, “Indian American elected to state office”, and on and on. I understand that this is a milestone for the South Asian (not just Indian) community and the larger immigrant community, but I don’t think celebrations are in order just yet. I, like many others, am torn between being excited that “one of us” finally made it to a relatively important position and being disgusted that “one of us” believes that the only colors that matter are “red, white, and blue” (yes, that is an actual quote). No, I don’t think that everything should be a race issue but I also don’t think that it should be ignored or rejected or pushed away.

I don’t care that he changed his name from Piyush to Bobby. I don’t care that he converted to Catholicism when he was a teenager. But I do care about the issues that he claims to care about but doesn’t act on. I do care about the Indian Americans who continue to donate money to his campaign thinking that he will listen to their concerns once he is in office. And for all I know, he might. He might make good on all of his promises and come through for all of the people who have contributed so generously to his campaign. He might do all of these things, yes. But then again, he might not. And that’s why I think the celebrations should be postponed for a little bit.

He is the product of immigrants. He is Indian. He is the new governor of Louisiana. He is all of these things. But is he “one of us?” In my opinion, he does NOT represent all South Asians in this country and he certainly does not represent me. How can I identify with someone who is “100 percent against abortion, no exception”, supports the teaching of intelligent design in schools, has an A rating from the Gun Owners of America, strongly supports the war in Iraq, opposes new hate crime legislation, and is homophobic. Basically, he is the Anti-Me and that is what I am afraid of. I know I don’t live in Louisiana but I do live in this country and I do exist as part of this immigrant community that people believe he represents. He must understand that one of the hats he wears is that of the token “Indian” elected to a high position.

He is setting precedents, he is the “first” this and the “first” that, and maybe he will be the “first” real success story for South Asians by realizing that he and all politicians need to look at the world through a social justice lens. Maybe he will one day serve as a role model for young South Asians not for just getting elected into office, but for being accountable for what he does while he is IN office. Ok I’m done ranting and raving. I’ll move on to thinking some more about this.

Wait, one more rant. I got an email today from USINPAC that said “The U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) has proudly supported the political career of the Governor-elect, and we are excited about what Mr. Jindal looks to achieve in the near future. USINPAC and the 2.5 million strong Indian-Americans nationwide celebrate this historic event along with the people of the state of Louisiana.” This makes it seem like all Indian-Americans are in tune with Jindal’s politics and “celebrate” his election. Celebrating, in my opinion, is much different than acknowledging. I recognize and acknowledge that Jindal had to struggle to get to where he is today, but that does not mean that I identify with his platform or agree with it. To say, that 2.5 million Indian Americans celebrate this event is a gross generalization and one that does not resonate well with me at all.

Ok the end. Here are some snippets from an essay I wrote two years ago about this topic:

When an Indian American candidate enters an election, the Indian American community will often come out in strong support of that candidate regardless of party affiliation or platform. Is it more important to see Indian Americans elected to office (local, state and federal)? Or is it more important for the Indian American community to elect politicians who more closely represent their views? Is it fair to assume that an Indian American politician will hold views that are always favorable to the Indian American community?

To elect someone based on a common nationality rather than a promising ideology would undoubtedly be a setback for the democracy we are trying to achieve in this country. It is important for us to be politically active and find our niche in politics, yet this is not the main purpose of a democracy. The power of democracy comes from the ability of the people to choose a representative who adequately embodies and emphasizes their values. At its core, democracy should be focused on accomplishing goals rather than on the individuals who serve to accomplish them.

The question remains; where do your loyalties lie? Do you vote for the Indian American and justify your vote by claiming support for your fellow Indian or do you vote for the other candidate in hopes that he will stick to his platform? Increasing diversity in a political world that is constantly evolving is indeed a worthwhile aspiration but it should not come at a cost. As important as it is for our community to support each other, this support should not come at the cost of an abandonment of ideals. Diversity plays an increasingly integral role in the American dream for democracy and although this should be realized and acted upon it should not become an issue that affects the integrity and functionality of the voting process.

A situation such as this creates quite a dilemma within the Indian American community. The tendency is to support Indian American candidates because, as members of an immigrant group, they have obviously overcome unconventional adversity to reach their current positions and it is important to recognize this by voting for them. It is also the general sentiment that voting for such candidates encourages future generations to involve themselves in politics and ensures continuing representation in the political realm. If the younger generation repeatedly sees Indian American candidates losing elections they will assume that it is futile for them to pursue such careers. However, if Indian Americans continue to blindly vote for candidates regardless of their party affiliation or platform, they too are setting a bad example.

It is not fair to assume that Indian American politicians will have views that are consistent with the majority of the Indian American community. Bobby Jindal, for example, ran for governor in the state of Louisiana and although he could have focused on a number of issues affecting the Indian American community at large, he chose to focus on the issues of his constituency. Although he continues to support Indian American policy initiatives in Congress, he realizes that his top priority is his constituency. It is also not fair to assume that once an Indian American is elected into office he will act as a puppet for the Indian American community.

Some may argue that while voting on racial lines might be considered a step backwards it could also be considered two steps forward for the success of under represented minorities in politics. As a minority group in this country, we must continue to be visible in all components of society. We have achieved recognition and exposure in fields such as medicine, science, business, and increasingly in the arts. It is now time for us to create a name for ourselves in the political world. It is of utmost importance, however, that we do this with integrity. We must show that we will not favor candidates based on their race but on their response to the issues at hand. If we fail to do this, the opportunity to succeed for minority candidates will be lost. If we show such blatant disregard for the political process we will be hurting the chances of future generations to break into the world of politics. Do we want to be labeled as people who “stick to their own” at any cost or as people who understand that they have settled in a new country where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed based solely on merit.

Candidates such as Kumar Barve, Supriya Christopher, and Bobby Jindal have helped break new ground and continue to forge a new path for aspiring Indian American politicians and we cannot let their efforts be in vain. In order to intensify our voice in this country, we must continue their legacy by adhering to the political process with integrity, understanding, and sensitivity.

 

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2 Comments to “Today I battled with “identity politics” and I think I lost. Thoughts?”

  1. Whether we, as Indians, like Jindal’s stances, he is still one of us because he identifies being Indian and is Indian by ethnicity. And whether we want to identify with him, the rest of America will identify him with us. If he’s a successful governor, that won’t be a bad thing no matter which side of the fence you’re on.

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