On October 20 Louisiana voters defied the state’s image by electing America’s youngest governor, an energetic, wonkish 36-year-old suburban New Orleans Congressman who has built a reputation for competence and repudiating government corruption. The election made news across the country. It also made big news in The Times of India; the paper reported that the villagers in the governor-elect’s ancestral home of Khanpura celebrated his victory by handing out sweets and performing bhangra, a Punjabi folk dance. In a state where many office holders have nicknames in quotations between their first and last names, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal’s election was something different. It was the first election of an Indian-American governor in US history and the first reported time the election of a Deep South governor was celebrated with bhangra.
On election night former Governor Mike Foster, who launched Jindal to power by appointing him secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals at 24, echoed the sentiment of many Louisianans when he explained that Jindal’s election means race is no longer an issue in Louisiana politics.
Jindal similarly dismissed the importance of race and class in Louisiana in his victory speech. After a pandering “Go Tigers” in observance of Louisiana State University’s football win–but before the country song “Louisiana Saturday Night” ended his speech–he observed, “In America, the only barrier to success is a willingness to work hard and play by the rules.”
To arrive at such a conclusion, of course, he must have overlooked Hurricane Katrina’s victims, many of whom faced insurmountable barriers to success and wound up in watery graves due to floods from the collapse of poorly designed levees. Jindal also must have looked past the fact that many of the people exposed to that crisis were willing to work and play by the rules; their road to success, however, was barred by an education system ranked among the worst in the country, streets filled with violent crime and few decent-paying jobs for those who did manage to escape all of the other snares of living poor in Louisiana. Indeed, though there are weekly reports on the city’s progress and struggles in the national media, Jindal’s campaign ignored Hurricane Katrina and Louisiana’s crisis of poverty and racial inequality, the issues the storm exposed to a horrified nation.
Perhaps this is why Jindal won only 10 percent of the votes from the state’s black population and why he lost in Orleans Parish. Apparently black voters did not see Jindal’s prospect for victory as corresponding with their own, even though Jindal broke the conventional wisdom that only white politicians can win statewide office.
Jindal is Louisiana’s first nonwhite governor since P.B.S. Pinchback served briefly during Reconstruction in 1872. But for the 90 percent of black voters who cast their votes for the white men who ran against Jindal, the state–which recently contributed to America’s discourse on race with a noose hung from a “whites-only tree” in a schoolyard in the rural town of Jena–has not moved past race with Jindal’s election.
This is the state where the mostly black citizens fleeing New Orleans after Katrina were barred from crossing the bridge into Jefferson Parish, the white-flight suburb Jindal represented in Congress. (And Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, the recently deceased Chinese-American lawman, was one of the chief defenders for his officers’ actions, a natural given his past endorsement of racial profiling and using caricatures of African-Americans for paintball target practice.) This is the state from which the US Supreme Court recently granted review of a capital case involving a black defendant wherein the prosecutor struck all potential African-American jurors and then urged the all-white jury not to allow the black defendant to become another O.J. Simpson and escape responsibility for his actions. And most important, this is a state where the black citizenry is disproportionately poor (even worse than most other places in America), cut off from the little prosperity that exists and worst served by crumbling public institutions like the education system and the anemic health system (which Jindal once ran).
So while race may no longer matter to former Governor Foster and may not have barred success for Jindal, there is reason to believe that it is still important to black people in Louisiana, who overwhelmingly rejected Jindal’s vision that the state already offers all people equal opportunity.
Even with images of bhangra in my mind, so long as the music goes something like “My brother Bill an’ my other brother Jack/Belly full o’beer and a possum in a sack/Fifteen kids in the front porch light/Louisiana Saturday night,” it’s hard for me to believe that things have changed very much.