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Bobby Jindal And Racial Stereotypes

Boosters of Bobby Jindal's presidential prospects have suggested to me--correctly, I think--that his racial background could be less of a hurdle for white voters than Barack Obama's was because, as a South Asian American, Jindal would be perceived as a "model minority." Where racially nervous whites might look at Obama and think of some scary African American they saw on "The Wire," they'd look at Jindal and think of that nice young internist who took care of them while the family doctor was on vacation in Boca.

But stereotypes sometimes cut in unexpected ways. Both Obama and Jindal are at the geeky end of the spectrum among American politicians. But Obama's race cuts against this persona, and makes him "cool" in a way (however studiously achieved) it's hard to envision a comparably wonky white politician being perceived. As Michelle noted in her essay on the subject:

Biracial heritage aside, Obama is a black man. And, in this country, black men have long had the edge on cool.... [A]s a thought exercise, imagine Obama as a white politician. Wonky, overeducated, idealistic, unflappable, reform-minded, big into basketball, articulate but without the lyrical echoes of the African American pulpit--far from being brother cool, Obama would be ex-senator turned failed presidential candidate Bill Bradley.

So while Jindal may not face the same radical-black-guy stereotypes as Obama, neither will he benefit from the same cool-black-guy stereotypes. If anything, the common stereotypes of Asian-Americans--as earnest strivers who may be a little nerdy--could exacerbate Jindal's already wonky self-presentation. When Ace of Spades (exactly the kind of conservative id figure Jindal will want to impress if he runs for the GOP nomination at some point) says that last night the Louisiana governor reminded him of "Achmad, Jaglesh, Clayton, etc., in Animal House," the ethnic geek stereotype is hard to miss. And that could be an issue in a nation where seven of the last eight presidential elections have been won by the candidate widely perceived as cooler, more likable, more popular: Reagan, Reagan, Clinton, Clinton, Bush (arguably primarily for these reasons), Bush, and Obama. (I consider the 1988 election a draw in terms of uncoolness.)

To be clear, I'm not trying to indulge these stereotypes. But it would be silly to pretend they don't exist in the minds of a non-trifling number of voters. Now, if Jindal gives many more national speeches as bad as last night's, his ethnicity won't make any difference. (The fact that he's been most widely compared to Kenneth of "30 Rock" is a nice indicator of Americans' ability to see beyond skin color.) Moreover, for a number of reasons I think it would be a great thing for the GOP, and the country, if Jindal were his party's nominee for president in 2012 or (more likely) 2016. But he may have a trickier path than some of his fans imagine.

--Christopher Orr