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An Illiberal Education and Southern Politics

Randal Jelks: Dinesh D’Souza, Nikki Haley, and Bobby Jindal have proven what the late comedian Richard Pryor once mocked with great aplomb in his 1975 comedy album, Is it Something I Said? He noted that the first thing that the Vietnamese boat people learned in an ESL class was how to say, “nigger…. so that they could become good citizens.”

Most of you will not remember or read Dinesh D’Souza’s book, An Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. D’Souza charged, polemically, that vocal minorities such as African Americans would be better served by working on their study habits rather than civil rights or multicultural inclusion programs. According to D’Souza, what hindered African Americans was the "culture of poverty," which bread criminality, illegitimacy, and welfare dependency. D’Souza’s claims were nothing new. Political conservatives had been asserting these kinds of things in one form or another since African Americans were emancipated from slavery.

nikki haley

He, like his ideological predecessors, never fully provided a historical context for their emphatic claims, which de-emphasized the legacy of American slavery and the long-term affects of de jure racial segregation throughout the country. They simply blamed African Americans for their seemingly inability to adapt to “civilized” standards. When An Illiberal Education was published in 1991, I was struck that it was an Asian immigrant, specifically an Indian immigrant from Mumbai, was making this argument. D’Souza had assimilated the American penchant for half-truths and historical amnesia.

D’Souza came to the U.S. in 1978, but he never acknowledged in his book that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (co-sponsored by the late U.S. Senators Philip Hart of Michigan and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts) that replaced the National Origins Act of 1924 was as much a civil rights act as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 equalized the regions of the world from where immigrants were permitted to come. Throughout much of American history, European immigrants were given first priority.

The racial reasoning was spelled out quite clear in the 1924 revision of the immigration act. (Africans, of course, were immigrants too; they were involuntarily immigrants throughout the eighteenth century on into the first eight years of the nineteenth century.) Southern Democrats and Republicans generally opposed this 1965 revision, just as they had opposed civil rights legislation. However, African American-led organizations generally lobbied for the bill so that immigrants from non-European countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America had a fair opportunity to be accorded American citizenship. In a real sense civil and human rights activism opened the doors for the D’Souzas of the world to be Americans.

I had no idea when D’Souza wrote his book that nearly twenty years later two Indian immigrants would be the political leaders in two states of the old Confederacy. Last week, Nikki Haley (born Nimrata Randhawa) whose parents emigrated from Amritsar, in the state of Punjab, became the Republican nominee and frontrunner for the governorship of South Carolina. Ms. Haley is now slated to be the first woman of Indian descent to serve as governor of any state in the country. She will, if she wins, be the governor of the state most notoriously involved in the oppression of African Americans. Her political fortunes are connected to the South Carolina’s neo-conservative politics, so deeply rooted in the racial politics of the late Strom Thurmond. Thurmond’s politics were thoroughly rooted in white supremacy and were held together, and sometimes justified, by an evangelical theology that still grips South Carolina today (Ms. Haley who grew up Sikh converted to Protestantism, Methodist).

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I am not writing this to cast any aspersions on Ms. Haley’s history making bid to be the first woman governor in South Carolina or the success stories of Indian immigrants rising in the ranks of American politics. This is all great news! Nevertheless Ms. Haley, based upon her politics, is a direct political descendant of Strom Thurmond and his legacy as a Dixiecrat and a “neo-conservative” Republican.

This brings me to Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana. Jindal, like Haley, is the child of Indian immigrants from the state of Punjab. And he, too, is the scion of Louisiana’s racial politics. In order to make his bid to be the governor of the state, Mr. Jindal, like Ms. Haley, had to adapt to the tortuous racial politics of Louisiana so that he could become an acceptable to the state’s ruling political establishment. And also like Haley, Jindal, who was reared religiously Hindu, converted to Christianity through Catholicism, which is one of the key Christian institutions in southern Louisiana. Jindal made himself thoroughly American by making himself thoroughly “Southern.”

Just like Ms. Haley, I admire Jindal’s intelligence, disciplined mind, and educational attainment. He is an immigrant success story. Who could not admire the strenuous demands he placed on himself as a student to achieve and climb up the political ladder of a Southern state at such an early age? His successes, however, does not dispel the realities of Louisiana’s political history rooted in racial slavery, racial segregation, and limiting the power of black voters.

Dinesh D’Souza, Nikki Haley, and Bobby Jindal have proven what the late comedian Richard Pryor once mocked with great aplomb in his 1975 comedy album, Is it Something I Said? He noted that the first thing that the Vietnamese boat people learned in an ESL class was how to say, “nigger…. so that they could become good citizens.” Unfortunately, holding racialized views are part of the American way and these views influences immigrants just as they do the rest of us. Looking at the emerging politicians in South Carolina and Louisiana reminds me that history is full of ironic twists, power grabs, and unconscionable alliances, even one ethnic minority to another.

Randal Jelks

Randal Jelks

Randal Jelks is an Associate Professor of American Studies, African, and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. His latest book is African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids (Illinois, 2006).

Republished with permission from the History News Network.