Indian Americans Are Progressing, But With Power Comes Responsibility
The IAAS found that living in the US doesn’t truly change the diasporic sentiment or opinion towards caste.
Last month the United States Census Bureau published the 2020 Census that proved once again that America is indeed a melting pot of cultures. The improvements and changes made by the Bureau in the question design and data processing have enabled a more thorough investigation revealing that the US population is much more multiracial and diverse than what was measured in the past.
It also illuminated that Asians have nearly tripled in number in the last three decades and the group of Asians that are growing the fastest among them are the Indian Americans. At 4 million, they make up 1.2 percent of the US population.
Indian Americans are increasing their footprint in turfs that matter.
Though they still have the largest number of non-citizen status holders indicating the presence of a large number of new immigrants, their median income is the highest among Asians at $123,700, almost double the American national median income.
By 2030 they might be the largest population among Asians overtaking the Chinese.
Though Indian Americans are 1.2 percent of the American population, 9 percent of doctors in the US are of Indian descent and half of them are not second-generation immigrants. They serve every seventh patient in the country. The Indians have made quite a dent in the Silicon Valley universe as well. One in every ten tech workers is of Indian origin and one in every three start-ups has an Indian co-founder. They comprise 8 percent of the founders of tech companies.
There is a large number of Indian-origin faculty at US business schools and a significant number of Indian Americans are business school deans at America’s best universities. Many Indians are employed in the field of financial management too.
Over the decades, Indians have also started becoming more prominent in politics. In 2020, close to 60 Indian American candidates ran for the state legislature or the US Congress. There were many more running for offices at the local level.
What Makes the Indian Americans So Successful?
Devesh Kapur, during the launch of his book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America” he co-authored with Sanjoy Chakravorty and Nirvikar Singh in 2017, pointed out that Indians in America did not resemble any other population anywhere; not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation. And that’s because of how they to come to the US.
Focusing on the wave of Indians that came to the US after the 1990s, Kapur states that they all arrive with work visas or to pursue higher studies in fields that require a skilled workforce. So, they have the benefit of what he calls “a triple selection” process. The first two selections happen even before they leave India.
First, the social system in place creates a pool of mostly urban candidates, receive higher education and are well connected since they come from higher castes.
Second, the Indian examination system caters perfectly to this group of candidates and ushers them to join specialised training in technical fields.
Third, this favoured group of immigrants with just the right skill set are in demand in the US so they arrive with well-paying jobs and skip the grubby "ghetto stage" and the struggle and squalor faced by first-generation immigrants who come as refugees without proper education and employment.
Instead, they settle in middle-class neighbourhoods and suburbs with good schools close to their place of employment, mostly in tech hubs in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and upcoming cities like Dallas.
Indian Americans Have Come a Long Way
'Asian Indians' were listed as a separate ethnic category for the first time in the 1980 US Census. There were only 3,61,544 Indians in the country then. By 1990, the US had 1 million Indians. After three decades, that number has swelled to 4 million.
The flow of Indians into the US happened over several phases. Till 1890, some Indians had entered the US as servants to the East India Company.
In the 1890s, a group of Sikh farmers made their way to the west coast and laboured in farms and factories in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.
In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act increased the Asian immigration quota to 2,000 arrivals per year and Indian immigrants started settling all over the country as opposed to just the west coast, but it is the Civil Rights Movement and the following Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened the doors for Indians along with other Asians.
It ushered in a wave of well-educated Indian doctors, engineers, and scientists. The 1980s mostly brought in families and relatives of those who were settled in the US. But from the 1990s, the Y2K scare changed the IT landscape and pulled in 2/3rd of the Indian Americans now in the country.
Prejudices the Indians Carry – The Caste & Religion Questions
In the last twenty years, the Indian population has grown in leaps and bounds and with that has crept in the prejudices the population carried with them from their home country.
The 2020 Indian Americans Attitude Survey (IAAS) published its results earlier this year and found caste to be a common thread in Indian Americans’ social circles. It also learned that religion plays a central role in the lives of Indian Americans. This survey came in the wake of the Cisco case in which for the first time in US history, a state authority sued a multinational tech company, and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against an Indian engineer from a lower caste.
The IAAS, a nationally representative online survey of 1,200 Indian American residents in the United States conducted last year found that though caste is a sensitive topic among the diaspora, living in the US doesn’t truly change the diasporic sentiment or opinion towards caste.
Even though a large proportion of Hindu respondents did not identify with a caste, only a small fraction was unaware of the caste composition of their networks.
Of those who identified with a caste, 83 percent categorised themselves as upper caste. Also, those who recently arrived in the United States are just as likely to identify with a caste group as those who have been here for a quarter-century or more.
Caste discrimination is not limited to tacit bullying in tech companies like Cisco. Earlier, in the month of May this year, the raiding of the BAPS temple in New Jersey by the US authorities revealed an even uglier face of it. It unearthed that even today Dalit workers are being brought to the US on R-1 or temporary religious volunteer visas, being locked up in trailers, and paid a paltry salary.
The IAAS also uncovers that while only a minority of NRI respondents are concerned about the importation of political divisions from India to the United States, those who do, identify religion and political parties in India as salient factors that polarise the Indian diaspora.
While this is not a big deal for India right now, it could become more impactful if NRIs are enabled to vote from overseas. It can also have a spillover effect on how favourably Indian Americans respond to the changing demography of the US.
Prejudices They Form Over Time
Added to these pre-existing predispositions is the patina of prejudice that collects on the Indian Americans while they adjust to their new lives in a faraway continent.
Isabel Wilkerson discusses in her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” how historically immigrants coming to the US have struggled to survive and often sided with the "White" to fit in and “be accepted.”
Vijay Prashad in “The Karma of Brown Folk” points out how Indians have quietly accommodated racism by allowing their example – the example of the “model minority” to be used as a weapon in the war against Black America. But being complicit in covert or overt discrimination against a particular race or community is no longer acceptable.
The 2020 Census illuminates that the very definition of "White American" is being reinterpreted by the US Census Bureau. For there is marked acknowledgment of the fact that multiracialism is a growing trend in the country and that it has made the "White" a much more complex category to pin down.
Indian Americans show a promising economic profile in the 2020 Census, but their clout is growing in the community and political arena as well. Since now they occupy positions of influence and power in political offices, they need to be more cautious.
If they want to become true leaders in the first world, if they want to invest in well-rounded development for their next generation, they need to get rid of their deep-seated prejudices, expand their horizons and grow more inclusive and open-minded when it comes to other races and communities.
(The author is a public policy professional based in Arlington, Massachusetts. The views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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