Indian Republicans and the Model Minority Myth

By Jamilah King Jun 10, 2010

Do Indian American politicians represent a new "third way" in the South’s often murky political landscape?

That’s the question that’s on some people’s minds this week after conservative Nikki Haley inched toward the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina this week. If she wins in November, she’ll join Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal as staunchly conservative Indian Americans leading very Southern states. The Progressive even went so far as to call them a new "odd species."

Granted, neither candidate has escaped America’s racialized political fray unscathed. Shortly before this week’s primary Haley realized she may not be white enough after all. But the refrain is everywhere: the GOP is the perfect place for Indian American politicians whose "cultures" tout hard work and family values.

Tunku Varadarajan, writing for the Daily Beast, all but ascribes Jindal and Haley’s success to them simply being the best ones for the job — and the GOP not carrying the burden of "identity politics."

I do wonder, sometimes, whether America’s toxic black-white history and its legacy create a need for a "third way"–for emblems of the Other that are not part of the toxic mix, especially in the South. Indians, here, offer a great political convenience. They have an irrefutable profile as strivers and self-starters.


Why has no Indian-American liberal risen as high in the Democratic ranks as Jindal and Haley have done in the GOP? Could it be that because Democrats put more of an emphasis on identity politics, an Indian-American Democrat would have to contend with other ethnic constituencies that might think that it’s "their turn" first? And once you go down the "identity" route, your success as a politician tends to rest more on the weight of numbers–the size of your ethnic constituency, or your racial voting bloc–than on the weight of your ideas.

Of course, there’s something also to be said for both politicians changing their names and faiths to win over the white Christian vote.