In 2003, 32-year-old Bobby Jindal launched an ambitious campaign for Governor of Louisiana.
It is the biggest and more powerful position in the state, and this was the first campaign in Jindal’s entire life. Jindal spent most of his twenties working in a series of high-profile appointed jobs. He was Louisiana’s youngest-ever Cabinet-level appointment, Secretary of Health and Hospitals; shortly after that, Jindal became the President of the University of Louisiana system, and less than two years later, Jindal was appointed as the executive assistant for Tommy Thompson, the United States Secretary of Health and Hospitals.
Despite his stellar resume, there were concerns that his ethnicity may have cost voters, particularly in Central and Northern Louisiana, the state’s evangelical core, including hundreds of thousands who had only a decade or so before supported a man named David Ernest Duke as he began measuring the drapes at the Governor’s Mansion.
When his opponent, Lt. Governor Kathleen Blanco, sent a mailer featuring a photograph of Jindal, the Jindal campaign accused her of darkening his skin. Quoting Asian Week:
To their credit, the Democrats did not overtly exploit these sentiments. Yet, a last-minute Blanco television ad, with its strident “Wake Up Louisiana! Before it’s too Late!” and its disturbing photograph of a very young, dark-skinned Jindal with his hair sticking up, emphasized his alienness: his status as being outside the category of those who needed to be “awakened” — Louisianans.
There was only one problem: The picture they used of Jindal had been taken directly off of the candidate’s website. The late, great J, Ray Teddlie, who was Blanco’s communications director, simply sent reporters the URL of the photograph, and the controversy ended before it even got legs. This wasn’t an opponent purposely darkening a candidate to make him look different; If anything, it reflects an ugly cynicism about racial politics and identity.
Bobby Jindal is a brown man, conceived in India, born of two Indian parents. It is more than a little bizarre and depressing that this elementary observation is considered “race-baiting.” Even stranger, Jindal’s official-looking portrait of him as a white man has been hanging in the State Capitol for several years. “The Governor always liked the portrait,” a former staffer told me. “We called it, ‘The Michael Jackson.'”
The artist, who never even met Jindal, is apparently in denial, arguing that we altered the photo. For the record, the photo was not altered in any way, and the lighting is natural and available. In other words, this is what it looks like.
Why did it make a splash? Because it is provocative, jarring, and challenging, because it symbolizes something about Bobby Jindal.
I will let others unpack the implications, but I will say this: This isn’t the only time an artist was obliged to lighten his skin in a portrait.