A century ago, they were the underclass and not wanted – because of their skin colour. There were anti-Indian riots in the state of Washington in 1907. As late as 1935, some California establishments displayed ominous signs: “No jobs for Japs or Hindus”. That was then.
Today, Indian-Americans number over four million and are by far the best educated group in the US while being just 1% of its population.
Indian-American households have the highest income level. From being denied jobs once, Indian-American CEOs now collectively employ over 3.6 million people globally and account for $1 trillion in revenue and $4 trillion in market capitalisation.
The election of Kamala Harris – whose mother was from Chennai and father from Kingston – as the Vice President of the United States has brought the spotlight on the increasingly assertive Indian-American community. ‘Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans’ (Wisdom Tree) vividly captures the amazing success story of a community, many of whose earliest members came to the US with only a few dollars and battled discrimination, their weapons being their ability to work hard, an inclusive attitude, willingness to take risk and devotion for excellence.
The community today – young, growing, well-educated and socially aware — boasts of successful entrepreneurs, prominent CEOs, physicians and healthcare professionals, noted academics as well as other professionals. Indian doctors are among the most respected and influential group with a standing in America few ethnic groups can match. While accounting for 9% of American doctors and physicians, they serve every seventh patient in the US overall and every fifth patient in rural and inner cities.
Asian-Americans own half of all hotels in the US, so much so that the name Patel has become synonymous with hotels and motels. Members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association hold billions of dollars in property assets and employ hundreds of thousands.
And who can overlook the Indian shadow over Silicon Valley? One in every 10 tech workers in the US is an Indian, and one in every three tech startups has an Indian co-founder. Forbes counted eight Indians on its 2020 list of the 400 richest people in America and 14 on its Midas List of the most powerful venture capitalists.
From August 1986, when President Ronald Reagan named Dr Jan Pillai of Temple University as the first person of Indian origin in a senior job in the federal government, the Indian-American community has come a long way, shedding its earlier reluctance to embrace mainstream politics. By January 20 this year when he took office, President Joe Biden had named nearly two dozen Indian-Americans for key jobs in his administration.
If Barack Obama appointed the largest number of Indian-Americans in the administration, his Republican successor Donald Trump was the first to give a cabinet position to a person of Indian descent, Nikki Haley. Haley, whose family hails from Amritsar, urged the Indian-Americans to “brag about their achievements and not hide behind their traditional humility and shyness”.
With high incomes, the Indian-Americans are also now giving more in charity. Politicians court them for the same reason – they donate for political causes too. The India Philanthropy Alliance (IPA) raises more than $135 million annually in donations, including over $60 million in the US. The Diaspora donates for causes in India, and was active after the Covid-19 humanitarian crisis. While community members are great at donating time and volunteering, they lag behind when it comes to donating money compared to other wealthy Americans. This could be because Indian-Americans tend to give a part of their earnings to families and friends in India and to help build temples or mosques in the US.
Although the Indian-Americans are probably the second most powerful lobby in US foreign policy after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the community remains divided. One reason is that Indians, unlike Jews, do not face an existential threat to keep them glued all the time. The community tends to focus more on issues that matter to it rather than identify with a country with which they relate only culturally and perhaps socially, says book Editor Tarun Basu.
Not All Rosy
But the Indian-American story is not wholly rosy. In contrast to the achievers, Indians constitute 4% of all undocumented immigrants in the US – about 6,30,000 people. In other words, every eighth person of Indian origin is an undocumented immigrant. Census data of 2018 found that 6.5% of Indian-American households live below the poverty line. This is where the creamy sections of the diaspora need to step in.
Sujata Warrier and Shamita Das Dasgupta argue that the Indian-American community masks the fissures within so as not to dent the “success” story. The diaspora, they say, is adept at denying social ills within – crime, divorce, poverty, homelessness, under- and unemployment, delinquency, drug addiction, intergenerational rows and women abuse. The addiction to “model minority” has been juxtaposed to Black and Latin peoples to deny or minimise their histories of cultural and systemic oppression in the US.
The legitimate criticism does not take away the credit that rightly belongs to the Diaspora. It is not easy for an immigrant population from a developing country to become the most educated, highest-earning ethnic community in the world’s most advanced nation in almost a single generation.
Indian-Americans rightly credit a part of their success to America’s love for merit. No wonder, Kamala Harris (who also considers herself Black) became the first Indian-American elected to the Senate in 2016 and, within four years, the first woman to the second most powerful office in the country, with a potential to enter the White House one day.
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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