Washington — Ami Bera is proud to be an Indian-American.
“I do not shy away from my story,” Bera, a Democratic congressman from California whose parents immigrated from India, said recently. “There is no problem being an Indian-American. Because that is the tapestry of the United States. It’s generations of people coming together to weave this great melting pot — the United States — different culture, different ancestries. We are all Americans, but we all bring those values as well — the Irish, the Italians and now the Indian-Americans.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal, maybe not so much.
“I do not believe in hyphenated Americans,” Jindal, whose parents also immigrated from India, said in a speech in London last month.
“My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans — not Indian-Americans,” Jindal said. “If we wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India. It’s not that they are embarrassed to be from India. They love India. But they came to America because they were looking for greater opportunity and freedom.”
His disdain for hyphens, he said in London, “gets me into some trouble with the media back home.”
His speech has spurred a lot of comment — Bera was quoted in a follow-up story — although not so much for his hyphenophobia as for what critics call his Islamophobia.
Jindal decried the existence of Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe — despite disavowals of the claim just before the speech by Fox News and others who previously had advanced it. He raised the specter of Muslim conquest and colonization of the West.
Jindal also talked about how assimilation has become a dirty word.
“It really depends on whether the immigrants coming to your country are coming to join your culture, your mores, your laws, and become a part of your history,” he said. “Or, are they coming to be set apart, are they unwilling to assimilate, do they have their own laws they want to establish, do they fundamentally disagree with your political culture?
“Therein lies the difference between immigration and invasion.”
This is nothing new for Jindal.
“We all remember learning in grade school about America as the great ‘melting pot,’ ” he wrote in 2013 in an opinion piece for the Politico website. “But now, we seem to act as if that melting pot is passé, an antiquated notion.
“We still place far too much emphasis on our ‘separateness,’ our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc.,” he wrote. “We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.”
Jindal is an all-but-announced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and his views on immigration and radical Islam likely will endear him to some elements of the party. He’s been playing to the right wing anyway, courting fundamentalists at events such as the Response prayer rally he headlined in Baton Rouge last weekend. And given his ethnicity and non-pink complexion, his stance may reassure some voters with narrower views of Americanism than his.
But Jindal displayed a personal impulse toward assimilation that pre-dated his active involvement in politics.
Raised as a Hindu with the given first name of Piyush, he switched to “Bobby” as a schoolboy, which he attributes to his admiration for the character of that name on “The Brady Bunch” TV sitcom. In high school, he converted to Christianity, which, as he noted in London, is dominant religion in the United States.
There’s no reason to doubt Jindal’s admiration for Bobby Brady (although the history of Louisiana might be different had he preferred, say, Lamont Sanford of “Sanford and Son”). Nor are there grounds for questioning the sincerity of his religious conversion.
Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that any reasonably intelligent and observant young man sensitive to issues of ethnic identity in the Baton Rouge of the 1970s would note that some groups seemed more prominent than others among those who drove the nice cars, lived in the fancy houses and held the important jobs — and if you wanted to get ahead, it was clear which group it was better to belong to.
That may be less true today than it was then. But it’s still true, and that might be something Jindal would work to change. It seems unlikely, though, to be a cause he will champion in any forthcoming visits to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.