VIEW: Southern exposure —Saleem H Ali
What is remarkable and worthy of admiration in the American system is that despite these many failings and flaws, the union has now withstood the tensions and stresses of political divides for more than a century since the end of the Civil War. Here is where Pakistanis, Indians and all others who live in diverse societies must draw their most fateful lessons
The American South has often been stereotyped as a place of racial prejudice and drawled accents where minorities have a lesser chance of success than the dominant white population. While there is certainly some grain of truth to such perceptions of prejudice, one particular election in Louisiana eroded this negative stereotype on October 20, 2007.
For the first time in history, a politician of Punjabi-Indian ancestry named Bobby Jindal was elected as the governor of the famed southern state, which is home to that most iconic of cities — New Orleans.
Mr Jindal’s parents came to the United States as immigrants several years before his birth and quickly established themselves within the educated middle class that many other Asian-Americans are now happily a part of. Yet, scratching below the surface also reveals how immigrants to America, particularly to the South, must also be resolute conformists with the dominant culture. Despite his distinguished credentials as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a graduate of Brown University, Mr Jindal had to brandish some more visceral values to meet the litmus test of his conservative electorate. He converted from Hinduism to Catholicism and joined the chorus of anti-abortion rhetoric that is the hallmark of most Southern election campaigns.
As a member of the Republican Party, Mr Jindal has been a staunch supporter of President Bush and the war in Iraq and has voted with the Republican Caucus 97 percent of the time during his brief time as a Congressional representative. Mr Jindal cleverly played the conservative card to his base of republican voters while also playing the colour card to the African Americans who had languished after Hurricane Katrina. Yet despite the fact that his policies have been antithetical to Indian popular opinion, he is still a source of immense pride for Indians.
After his election, the Times of India reported that in Jindal’s ancestral village of Khanpura, locals distributed sweets and performed bhangra upon hearing of his election. For them, it was enough that someone who looks Indian had broken the glass ceiling of American politics in the South, regardless of what he valued. Chameleonic tendencies could be forgiven as long as any slogan to elevate national pride might be substantiated by adding him to the pantheon of political celebrities.
The reality remains that to be mainstream politicians in America, minorities must still pander quite directly to the Southern electorate. I was reminded of this reality as I visited the Clinton Presidential Centre in Little Rock, Arkansas this week. This monumental tribute to President Bill Clinton is an impressive environmentally designed structure along a river corridor and contains educational displays and memorabilia from his eight years of presidency. As a Democrat, Clinton gained legitimacy from more conservative circles because of his Southern credentials. Unlike Jindal, Clinton’s story was one of small-town ascendancy rather than immigrant success, but struck the same chord of underdog meritocracy that favoured him with traditional voters.
The Clinton Centre is currently hosting an exhibition on Presidential attitudes towards race that was particularly instructive in these times. Of course, racism could not be delineated along party lines between Democrats or Republicans. The great champion of African American emancipation during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, was himself a Republican. On the other hand Democratic presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, who had once been championed by black voters and held prestigious academic titles, tacitly endorsed segregation. In 1913, Wilson did not oppose a motion to segregate workplaces, rest rooms and lunchrooms in the nation’s capital, which forced many blacks out of federal employment.
At the Clinton Centre, there were also countless photographs and ceremonial depictions of Hillary Clinton whom many Pakistani-Americans are now favouring as a potential presidential candidate after Mr Obama’s faux pas about the prospects of a pre-emptive military strike on Pakistan last summer. What the Pakistani diaspora should also remember is that Mrs Clinton had a chequered record with Pakistani-American voters as well. Many loyal and tireless Pakistani-American fundraisers who had helped to raise almost a million dollars for her senatorial race in 2000 had been sorely disappointed when she returned the cash because conservative commentators accused her of getting “Muslim money”.
As the presidential election approaches and we begin to hear the rhetoric to woo votes from all sides, let us remember the fault lines that exist in American society between North and South and between rural and urban electorates. Astute politicians such as Bobby Jindal have managed to play the game to victory but let us not delude ourselves into thinking that the democratic process has now been perfected in the “land of the free”. What is remarkable and worthy of admiration in the American system is that despite these many failings and flaws, the union has now withstood the tensions and stresses of political divides for more than a century since the end of the Civil War. Here is where Pakistanis, Indians and all others who live in diverse societies must draw their most fateful lessons
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies