Until I read this article, I didn’t even realize that Nikki Haley was Indian. Because, like most of the United States, I just don’t normally think of those things unless it is pointed out and made a big deal out of. She’s just a woman running for governor. And Bobby Jindal is just a man who is governor.
What explains the success of Jindal and Haley in their respective states? In posing this question, I hint, of course, at the South’s lingering reputation for racial intolerance; and who can deny that the two states in question have not always been at the forefront of America’s historical striving for racial amity?
One answer is that these two politicians are consummate conservatives in a milieu that rewards political conservatism, and that their success is a validation of their ideology and intelligence. Their ethnicity, in other words, is an irrelevance. This view was expressed, in effect, by a friend—a law professor in Tennessee—when I asked him why he thought Indian-American conservatives were doing so well in some Southern states: “There are lots of Indians in the South, and they work hard and do well. Why wouldn’t people like ’em, especially when they work hard at politics and espouse conservative, capitalist, pro-family views?”
Naturally, it is unwise to make any generalizations based on the emergence of Jindal and Haley alone, but their success is striking, given that Indian Americans comprise barely 1 percent of the U.S. population, and are not found in overly large numbers in either Louisiana or South Carolina. A generalized observation that we can make, however, is that the GOP—being a relatively new establishment party in the South—has fewer institutional barriers to fresh faces. There are no GOP “machines” there, in the manner of the Democratic ones in New York or Illinois, and there aren’t, also, the massive expenditure hurdles of the kind that exist in California.
This would be no surprise to most transplanted northerners we know that, while the south can be abrasive in certain ways, particularly to those unfamiliar with the local customs, the days of true racism in everyday life are long gone. Well educated, conservative southerners, in particular, freed of the stereotypes that dog the liberals by demanding that victimization remain, are far more interested in someone who supports their values than in someone who looks like them (whatever they may look like).