Looking at the radiant Michelle Obama smiling from the covers of every major magazine in America, it’s not hard to imagine that the unquestionably foxy Supriya Jindal could make a very elegant first Indian-American first lady one of these days.
But she’ll never get that chance if her husband doesn’t tighten up his game.
Republicans have rolled out their rising stars of color—Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele—and so far, they have mostly demonstrated that they’re pretty much clueless about how to connect with people of color.
Republicans’ long-term problem isn’t Jindal’s recent decision to oppose the president by signing on to Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails” mantra, or that Steele could face a premature vote of no confidence by already-disappointed members of the RNC. Steele badly needed a win in Tuesday’s too-close-to-call special election in New York’s 20th congressional district, just to cancel out last week’s freewheeling CNN interview, wherein he said he’d run for president if “that’s where God wants me to be” and admitted that he’s “done” with “bipartisan crap.” He went on, adding that his recent suite of cringe-inducing interviews was “all strategic” and, of course, tastefully done.
The “elephant” in the room is post-Goldwater Republican reliance on antipathy toward minorities among the hallowed voter demographic known alternatively as Reagan Democrats or “real” Americans. And in the present-day reality of an Obama world, it takes more than a loquacious black dude or true-believing, Indian-American public policy whiz to bootstrap that party into the 21st century.
Jindal and Steele suffer from what might be called the “Condoleezza Conundrum.” They don’t have a core constituency (although she has 170 supporters on Facebook). They’re boxed in by a party looking to branch out on the cheap by putting a few ethnic faces on their marquee, without considering that even when African Americans and Latinos lean to the right on abortion and gay marriage, it doesn’t mean they’re looking for the government to intrude into wombs and bedrooms.
As The Root’s Sophia Nelson reminds us, blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans—frequently devout, and in many instances coming from a striving immigrant perspective—often hold putatively conservative beliefs that are in line with parts of the Republican platform. But this ideological confluence is trumped by the party’s broader message over the long term: That finding a home within the GOP means that people of color should check their unique perspectives at the door.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama was questioned for calling himself an African American, rather than a biracial American. In her latest book, Guilty, Ann Coulter wrote that although he is biracial, Obama identifies “simply as ‘black’” in order to “race bait his way to success.” A ridiculous charge, but that, in fact, is exactly what Jindal and Steele have been asked to do.
By not-so-coincidentally choosing Obama’s first few weeks in office as their opportunity to shove forward the nearest camera-ready candidates of color, Republicans have undermined the claims of their own colorblindness and purported emphasis on “the content of our character.”
Steele missed an opportunity to gain some credibility with a broad African-American audience by not taking the chance to make a clean break with the Limbaugh wing of the GOP. Jindal’s otherwise inspirational family narrative falls flat because of his self-prescribed watering-down of his own heritage. On its own, his childhood name change from Piyush to Bobby as an assimilation measure doesn’t particularly rankle, but taken with his decision to convert from Hinduism to Catholicism, Jindal comes across as someone not 100 percent proud of who he is—Bobby “Brown,” not Bobby Brady.
It’s their prerogative. Steele and Brown can define themselves any way they want as individuals. But once they offer themselves up as leaders, the considerations are different.
And it’s in everyone’s interest, including Obama’s, for Republicans to eventually get people of color under their tent, because if in 2009 the party continues to apply 1999 thinking on issues of race, it will remain a regional, “minority” party for the foreseeable future—and will not succeed as a necessary counterweight to the Democratic majority.
Obama understands what Jindal and Steele don’t: That the way to broaden and recast the American Dream in a multicultural context—and thus attract a more diverse electorate to your political brand—is for blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans all to bend a little closer to a shared set of cultural values. That they should embrace diversity, not by fast-forwarding to a presumptive (and presumptuous) “post-racial” utopia, but by working up to a functional race impartiality—and not by asking people to suppress or pimp out their own cultures in order to get there.
Then maybe one of these days, the first Democratic Desi FLOTUS will welcome the first Republican Chicana POTUS to the White House. We'll be proud to see it happen and wonder why it was ever such a big deal.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.