Both Obama and Jindal are at the geeky end of the spectrum among American politicians. But Obama's race cuts against this persona, and makes him "cool" in a way (however studiously achieved) it's hard to envision a comparably wonky white politician being perceived. As Michelle noted in her essay on the subject:Okay, there's a lot going on here, and I will leave some of this open for discussion and respond to what you have to say, but let me sketch out a few points.Biracial heritage aside, Obama is a black man. And, in this country, black men have long had the edge on cool.... [A]s a thought exercise, imagine Obama as a white politician. Wonky, overeducated, idealistic, unflappable, reform-minded, big into basketball, articulate but without the lyrical echoes of the African American pulpit -- far from being brother cool, Obama would be ex-senator turned failed presidential candidate Bill Bradley.So while Jindal may not face the same radical-black-guy stereotypes as Obama, neither will he benefit from the same cool-black-guy stereotypes. If anything, the common stereotypes of Asian-Americans -- as earnest strivers who may be a little nerdy -- could exacerbate Jindal's already wonky self-presentation. When Ace of Spades (exactly the kind of conservative id figure Jindal will want to impress if he runs for the GOP nomination at some point) says that last night the Louisiana governor reminded him of "Achmad, Jaglesh, Clayton, etc., in Animal House," the ethnic geek stereotype is hard to miss. And that could be an issue in a nation where seven of the last eight presidential elections have been won by the candidate widely perceived as cooler, more likable, more popular: Reagan, Reagan, Clinton, Clinton, Bush (arguably primarily for these reasons), Bush, and Obama. (I consider the 1988 election a draw in terms of uncoolness.)
To be clear, I'm not trying to indulge these stereotypes. But it would be silly to pretend they don't exist in the minds of a non-trifling number of voters. Now, if Jindal gives many more national speeches as bad as last night's, his ethnicity won't make any difference. (The fact that he's been most widely compared to Kenneth of "30 Rock" is a nice indicator of Americans' ability to see beyond skin color.) Moreover, for a number of reasons I think it would be a great thing for the GOP, and the country, if Jindal were his party's nominee for president in 2012 or (more likely) 2016. But he may have a trickier path than some of his fans imagine.
1. "Cool" is a cop-out word. It's a word to make racism cute and safe. It's a word white people manipulate black people with: Come, bring your coolness, just the part of what we think of as blackness that makes us feel cool, but don't be whatever it is that we find excessive and fail to perceive as cool. Soothe us appropriately and you can be successful. You can even be President. Look! President Barack Obama! Yay! Aren't we cool? How terribly embarrassing.
2. Nerdiness, done right, is endearing. We might even call it cool. Orr suggests that white people warm up to the black nerd — Obama as Urkel — but not to the "South Asian" one, because there are just so darn many South Asian nerds. Do white people have ideas about the appropriate nerd proportion in the various racial/ethic groups? Are white people ashamed of themselves?
3. Comparing Jindal to Kenneth of "30 Rock" is not a nice indicator of Americans' ability to see beyond skin color. Quite the opposite! Instinctively repainting him white is — I would say — presumptively racial. To strip away his racial identity — to stereotype him as an especially white white man — is a powerful racial move. This is not nice at all. I would really like to know what makes white people so sure they are being nice about racial things. This confidence in niceness is misplaced, yet very very common....
4. .... in liberals. Liberals believe they are the good people with the good beliefs, the good hearts. Especially about race. How could it be otherwise? They are so nice and so good-hearted. And Bobby Jindal is not a liberal. He's a conservative. That's not good. That's bad. Bad, bad Bobby Jindal. Quick! Help me think of all the ways Bobby Jindal is just terrible. Ack! Don't look at him! He's horrible! I can barely stand to look at him. When he first emerges from behind a curtain, I moan "Oh, God." This is terrible. This is automatically horrible. A man of color, who is not supporting our side. One look and I am disgusted. How loathsome!
IN THE COMMENTS: Palladian writes:
Reading Orr's piece in The New Republic was a painful experience, although an informative one. It's a terrifyingly illustrative model of the racial psychopathology still endemic in the American psyche. In bringing about the absolutely necessary and noble goals of the early Civil Rights Movement, it was necessary to change the way people thought about the issue of race. Unfortunately this mental change quickly developed into a complicated neurotic knot that still strangles so many contemporary minds.
If you reread the article, it's not really about anything at all. It's just a tortured attempt to justify the author's political biases by attaching politics to race. The political discourse (for lack of a better word) in America today is yet another manifestation of the primitive force behind racism, sexism, xenophobia &c: us vs. them. Terrible to see racial and political bigotry merge, but it looks like that's where we're headed.
Liberals believe they are the good people with the good beliefs, the good hearts. Especially about race. How could it be otherwise? They are so nice and so good-hearted.
A good point about some liberals. They believe that it's entirely self-evident that they are the good guys. They sometimes seem to believe that this gives them license to say the most dreadful and stupid things because, after all, their hearts are in the right place. I've had friends express the most unspeakably offensive ideas to me under the assumption that they had immunity from responsibility because they were liberals.
It's like that scene in "Annie Hall":Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.
Alvy: Right, I'm a bigot, I know, but for the left.