Five years ago, Keith Bardwell, a Justice of the Peace from Tangipahoa Parish, refused to marry an interracial couple, earning himself attention in the national and international media. “The reason I didn’t (marry the couple),” he told CBS News, “is because I’ve had countless number (sic) of people that was (sic) born in that situation and that they claim the blacks or the whites didn’t accept the children, and I didn’t want to put the children in that position.” Governor Bobby Jindal quickly denounced Bardwell and called on the Louisiana Judiciary Commission to revoke his law license.
A few years later, Jindal penned an opinion piece for Politico titled “The End of Race,” arguing that America- and Louisiana in particular- had successfully purged itself of racism. Quoting (bold mine):
In 2003, I decided to run for governor of Louisiana, a state where David Duke got 44 percent of the statewide vote in 1990. The pundits said I was insane to even try. Friends worried about my mental stability and begged me not to run. I narrowly lost that first race, but I’ve won every race since then. I wish I had a nickel for every time East Coast political journalists have asked me about discrimination, and I wish I had a dime for every Louisiana voter who has broken those journalists’ ugly stereotypes.
Here’s what I’ve found in Louisiana: The voters want to know what you believe, what you stand for, and what you plan to do, not what shade your skin is. And I think that’s true of the country as a whole: America’s younger generation pays less attention to skin color than the generations that preceded them. (By the way, I noticed recently that the president of the United States, a man with whom I disagree with on almost everything, seems to have darker skin than most Americans. He hasn’t had a problem getting elected.)
Jindal’s argument may be reassuring to some, but it’s delusional and dangerously naive. Indeed, in the aftermath of his defeat in 2003, many of his own supporters and several Louisiana-based political analysts believed that race played an enormous role in the election. Quoting from the Associated Press (bold mine):
A Tulane University racism expert thinks the sharp tumble in Jindal’s support “means it never was there.” Lance Hill, head of the Southern Institute for Education and Research that studies bias, thinks analysts have underestimated the racial-ethnic factor in Jindal’s defeat, particularly given its critical role in Louisiana elections for decades.
Now look at the North Louisiana Republican turnout. Of the key parishes, Jindal won Bossier and Ouachita, but narrowly lost Caddo. Overall, he received 34,000 fewer votes in these three parishes than President Bush in 2000. That’s nearly two-thirds of his total losing margin statewide. “If Jindal had been white, he’d be governor right now,” Hill says.
Two days before the election, in the Tangipahoa Parish seat of Amite, voters were talking about the “foreigner,” or saying they had heard others call Jindal that and worse. Jindal lost Tangipahoa, though it went solidly for Bush in 2000 and gave David Duke a strong vote in 1991. It was just those Duke voters Jindal was seeking in his hard-right campaign.
The owner at the lawyers’ watering hole in downtown Amite passed on a sampling of racist comments too scurrilous to be reprinted. Even the mayor remarked on Jindal’s problematic “appearance,” saying he was going to vote for Blanco.
Jindal may have not earned the support of those Duke voters in 2003, but he’s had them ever since. And because of that, apparently, he now believes that racism is a thing of the past in Louisiana, a fictional narrative invented by meddlesome journalists on the East Coast who care less about the truth than disparaging the good people of the Gret Stet of Louisiana.
To be sure, I don’t know how much racism played a role in Jindal’s 2003 defeat. After all, he was a 33 year old who’d never run for political office in his entire life, and he was running against a respected and well-known woman who had been twice elected as Lieutenant Governor. Still, it’s hard to discount the solid evidence of overt racism against Jindal.
Today, as he prepares a quixotic bid for President, Jindal is one of the least popular elected officials in the entire country, largely because he squandered his goodwill among his own constituents by abandoning Louisiana in pursuit of his own personal, political ambitions. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by his willingness to pitch Louisiana as a post-racial paradise; he spends almost all of his free time elsewhere.
A week ago, on the eve of the midterm election, Senator Mary Landrieu told NBC News, “I’ll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.” Her assessment set off a firestorm among many conservatives, as if she had accused every white person in Louisiana of being a racist. Before the ink was even dry, Bobby Jindal took to social media, lambasting Landrieu’s comments as “remarkably divisive.” He subsequently released a statement on his official state website titled, “Gov. Jindal Blasts Senator Landrieu For Calling Louisianians Racist.” Among other things, he accused Landrieu of “living in a different century.”
It is worth mentioning: Bobby Jindal was under no obligation to pounce on Landrieu’s remarks. He is not a surrogate for anyone’s campaign. He’s not on the ballot. And more than likely, no one expected or requested a statement from Jindal. Frankly, I will never understand how or why the son of Indian immigrants has become such a fierce and staunch defender of revisionist history and such a rabid denier of white privilege. But as this should make clear: Bobby Jindal thinks that acknowledging racism is, in and of itself, racist and bad for his business.
How could anyone argue, with a straight face, that the South has always been friendly toward African-Americans? How could anyone, particularly the Governor of Louisiana, overlook or ignore 250 years of slavery, the Civil War, white-only primaries, generations of codified housing and employment discrimination, anti-miscegenation laws, school segregation, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, racial profiling, birther laws (one of which Jindal actually supported), and people like Keith Bardwell, the racist Justice of the Peace? How could anyone ignore the insipid racism expressed against President Obama on social media and in living rooms and bar rooms across Louisiana?
Well before Bobby Jindal was born, Mary Landrieu’s father Moon was in the state legislature, and when he was there, he voted against every single vestige of Jim Crow that ever passed across his desk. We owe much of our progress to people like him and Camille Gravel, white people who stood side by side with the giants in the civil rights movement. That’s the legacy of Mary Landrieu’s family. That is a part of her inheritance as a leader.
Jindal’s response to Mary Landrieu’s statement on race doesn’t just belie his own personal experience, and it doesn’t just discount the reality on the ground; it denies the dignity of countless champions who simply seek a better, more honest, and more equal country. It trivializes racism. And it’s dangerous and reckless, because the more we as a state and a society deny and ignore the realities of racism, the more we enable racists and the more we provoke the righteous scorn of those who feel marginalized and disenfranchised.
Bobby Jindal can’t will a post-racial Louisiana by the sheer force of his own words. He’s the Governor, not a fiction writer. But this much is certain: By refusing to acknowledge racism and discounting its continued pervasiveness, he will only make things worse.