Neither White, Nor Black, but Fully Southern

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2018-02-01

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French, John D

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Abstract

Just one year before Barack Obama rocked the world by becoming the first black, and more generally non-white, president of the United States, another race-related political upset occurred with the election of Governor Piyush (Bobby) Jindal of the Deep South state of Louisiana. Two years after Obama’s triumph, the country witnessed another southern surprise when Nimrata (Nikki) Randhawa Haley was elected Governor of South Carolina. As U.S. born children of foreign born Indian parents, Jindal and Haley were the first non-whites to win state-wide office in the South since the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877. In the span of three short years with Barack Obama’s election squeezed in between, the United States witnessed both a strengthening white political backlash against the new president and at the same two new state leaders in the Deep South, who themselves were also young and brown. Both Jindal and Haley have reflected on the improbability of their victories. “I don’t look like many people in South Carolina,” Nimrata Haley notes in her 2012 autobiography, and the same could be said for Jindal in Louisiana. Like much of the American South, their states not only had historically low immigration rates, but also very small Asian immigrant populations. In 2010 South Carolina, on the eve of Haley’s election, Asian Indians composed 0.18% of the state’s 5 million people while Louisiana’s Asian Indian population hovered around 0.2% of the state’s 4.5 million people. In fact, South Carolina and Louisiana were not even amongst the top five southern states in terms of Asian and Pacific Island populations which are: Virginia (4.2%), Texas (3.1%), Georgia (2.4%), Florida (1.9%), and North Carolina (1.75). As members of racial minorities, both candidates had found their way to power in a region historically defined by the tumultuous relationship between its dominant white majority and substantial black populations. South Carolina is 66% white and 28% black while Louisiana is 64% white and 33% black. According to exit polls, Haley won over 70% of white voters, who also composed 69% of her vote totals during her 2010 election. Louisiana does not count each candidate’s results broken down by race, but considering that Jindal won his election with 54% of the total vote, 48% of voters were black, and only 10% of black voters voted for Jindal, it can be said that Jindal dominated the white vote, as well. Moreover, these two Indian-Americans—one of them visibly brown skinned (Jindal) —had triumphed in states with solidly white electorates whose politics, before and after Jim Crow, had been characterized by brazen white supremacy. When V. O. Key wrote his classic 1949 volume Southern Politics, his chapter on South Carolina was subtitled “The Politics of Color” because of the sequence of “spectacular race orators” through mid-century who “put the white-supremacy case most bitterly, most uncompromisingly, and most vindictively,” even compared to elsewhere in the South. As for Louisiana (“The Seamy Side of Democracy”), Key offered a description of machine politics, populist demagoguery, and white supremacy that makes the state seem like an unlikely place for the triumph of a brown-skinned immigrant’s son, who had an undergraduate degree from Brown University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Beyond the challenge of race and national origin, Piyush and Nimrata also had to contend with having been raised in households that practiced unfamiliar faiths that were at best exotic, if not pagan and heathen, to most Southerners. Not only were the Jindals Hindu, but the Randhawas were also Sikh, an Indian religion whose followers, like her father, are often mistaken for Muslims because they wear a turban as a public sign of their faith. This, too, was challenging in a region that cherishes its overwhelming Christian heritage, the faith of which is largely practiced by both Southern blacks and whites. South Carolina has a 78% Christian population and Louisiana’s Christian population makes up 84% of the state.12 Although they had both converted to Christianity by the time of their election (Bobby is Catholic and Nikki is Methodist), the rest of both families, save one of Nimrata’s brothers, still practice their Hindu and Sikh faiths. Indeed, both had faced campaigns in which competitors sought to exploit this as a weakness. An early rival for Haley’s race in the state legislature distributed pamphlets that raised questions of Haley’s Christianity besides pictures of her family.13 And Jindal had grappled with religious-based accusations while running for governor when the President of the College Democrats at the University of Louisiana published a memo calling Jindal an Arab.14 In addition to contending with these daunting realities during their campaigns, the two, who were born and raised in the South, had to deal with their unique differences as very small minorities in an effectively segregated 1970s Christian South as children. Leslie Bow meditates on her own parents’ experiences as Chinese Americans in a Jim Crow-era Arkansas alongside the memoirs of other Asians in the Segregated South in her book Partly Colored: Asian Americans and the Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South. One chapter, “The Anxieties of the Partly Colored” focuses on the paranoid behavior that emerges in the subjects of her examined narratives whenever they are made aware of their ambiguous position in the strict and powerful dichotomy of Jim Crow. She writes, “…uneven status produces uneven or anxious narratives that oscillate between the conscious recognition of racial injustice and a resistance to seeing its self-implicating, conditioning effects…what the Asian American ‘turn in the South’ offers is…an alternative interpretive focus that brings to light the other effect of white supremacy: the degree to which its values are internalized by these subjects who do not at first appear either to bear the weight of its leveling apparatus or to share unequivocally its privileges. Looking at Asian memoirs of southern segregation, I want to explore the poetics of the unevenly oppressed.”15 Bow’s argument reveals the internal struggle of Asians in the South, who do not experience the overt racism doled to southern blacks but also do not have the same benefits enjoyed by whites, and as such, are constantly contending with a subtler form of white supremacy that at once, both protects them and belittles them. Michele Lamont’s work in her book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination separates these different scales of racism into two categories: discrimination and stigmatization. Discrimination, she defines, as the deprivation or prevention from opportunities and resources due to the basis one’s race, ethnicity, or nationality. Whereas, stigmatization, includes a wide range of subjective experiences where one’s dignity, honor, sense of self, or relative status is challenged. Stigmatization, when experienced on a frequent basis, adds to the “wear and tear” of racism that may compound disadvantages and drastically inhibit positive identity construction.16 Stigmatization is involved with being discriminated, but the reverse is not necessarily true. The anxiety-inducing effects of a latent white supremacy that Bow studied falls under Lamont’s definition of stigmatization. Jindal and Haley, as children whose role and identity were constantly flummoxed by their surrounding racial system, existed in this ambiguous reality that Bow examines while also having to contend with the maleffects stigmatization brings. To have the perseverance and confidence to become governors, this personal dilemma, too, was something that had to be personally resolved. Many commentaries have been suggested in order to explain how Jindal and Haley broke these challenging barriers in order to achieve their political success. Some Indian commentators, 70% of which nationally lean Democrat, alongside others on the left feel that the two governors, particularly Jindal, are effectively pandering to white voters and thus “sell-out” for votes and political success.1718 There is also the sentiment that Haley and Jindal because of their childhoods in the South without many Indian peers, actually grew up wanting to “be white”. Therefore, the political representations are the actualization of their fantasy identities.19 On the other hand, there are conservative icons, like Glenn Beck, who use the governors as an example that Southern conservative whites are indeed not racist. Beck mocks the left by saying, “the racist, horrible, hateful Tea Party elected more minorities than Democrats did.”20 Jindal and Haley both substantiate their constituents’ claims of racial acceptance. Haley at a Press Club conference explained, “I would not have been elected governor of South Carolina if our state was a racially intolerant place.”21 Jindal, too, refers to his election as proof that in Louisiana “The voters want to know what you believe, what you stand for, and what you plan to do, not what shade your skin is.”22 The personal reflections of the two individuals are interesting in that they both reject the identity politics that drew the national headlines to their campaigns. However, this thesis contends that most commentaries that conjecture reasons for the two’s improbable success operate with an incorrect assumption about the South, in that it is all white. Firmly rooted in Southern identity and history is the black community. The story of Jindal and Haley is not of newly immigrated Indians negotiating their relationship with the white community, but rather it is a story of three groups – Indian, black, and white, as they coalesce in the historical situations of Bamberg, SC and Baton Rouge, LA between the early 1970s to the late 1980s. Through Nimrata and Piyush’s own words, the experiences of their family members, and the insights of their friends and community members, this thesis seeks to reframe the discussion of Jindal and Haley in an entirely new light and even pierce the façade of their carefully cultivated public images. In taking their awkward positions as non-white immigrants in a racially polarized, Christian, and nativist South, it proves that the success of Niki and Bobby is not rooted in notions like assimilation or pandering; it is a story of stigma and insecurities and survival, difficult choices, and an individual’s ability to navigate the jagged edge of inclusion and exclusion. While dealing in origins alone, this thesis not only meticulously parses out the tumultuous journey of two families that each produced a child who chafed at the limits placed upon them by their origin and, in doing so, made Southern history, but also while showing how tightly their story is bound up with that of the ‘other’ large and far more profoundly stigmatized Southern non-white minority, African-Americans.

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Citation

Uddin, Shadman (2018). Neither White, Nor Black, but Fully Southern. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16065.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.