Profile of a diasporic community


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COULD we expect a heterogeneous country like India to spawn a homogenous diaspora? Of course not. Historical legacies from Mother India as well as the peculiarities of American immigration policies have ensured the diversity of the Indian diasporic community in the United States.

Early Indian migration into the United States began around 100 years ago when farmers from Punjab began appearing on the West coast of the United States, seeking work in the lumber mills of Washington state and large farms of California. They were followed by students who in 1913 established the Hindustan Ghadar Party, seeking India’s liberation from colonial rule. They could not have chosen a worse moment in American history to make their appearance in American society. Like the early 21st century, the first decade of the 20th century was a time of immigration into the United States with nearly a million people arriving annually on American shores. As a percentage of population, the foreign born accounted for 15% of the population as opposed to about 9% today (Spain, 1999). However, most of these immigrants came from Europe and the non-white immigrants – including the Chinese, Japanese and Indians – faced a substantial backlash.

Fears of a ‘Hindoo invasion’ resulted in riots which drove out Indians from Bellingham, Washington and subsequently many efforts were made to limit the number of Indians arriving in the US. Since non-whites were not eligible for naturalization, it was easy to exclude Asian inflow by passing laws that restricted immigration of individuals ineligible for citizenship and land ownership by non-citizens. Indians found it distasteful to be lumped with the ‘Asiatic races’ and tried to contest their exclusion on the grounds that an Aryan Caucasian ancestry made them white rather than Asian.1 However, the landmark case of US Vs. Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923 stripped Indians of this fig leaf and declared them ineligible for citizenship.



Restrictions on Indian immigration continued even after these racist naturalization laws against them were removed in 1946. Until 1965, nationality based immigration quotas only allowed a small number to migrate to the United States. It was only after these quotas were abolished in 1965 that much of the Indian immigration to the United States took place and, once the gates were opened, people of Indian origin became a force to be reckoned with.


People of Indian origin in the United States, those who classify themselves as Asian Indians on Census forms, come in many different flavours. Some are the classic Indian immigrants of the popular imagination: those who were born in India and migrated to the United States. But there are Indians from Fiji and Guyana, many come via Britain and Uganda and then there are the second generation immigrants, those who were born in the United States. Some classify themselves as Asian Indians alone, others are products of mixed racial heritage and claim multiple racial categories. As shown in Figure 2, in 2000, only about 53% of those who classify themselves as Indian Americans were born in India. About 35% claim Indian as a single identity but were born either in the United States or come from other diasporic communities in England, Africa or the Caribbean, including Pakistan. Another 12% are multi-racial and were not born in India.

The public perception of Indian-Americans tends to focus on Indians born in India who migrated to the United States. However, the demographic composition presented here suggests that this group represents only a portion of the Indian-Americans. Children of these immigrants as well as various diasporic communities migrating from the United Kingdom and Africa form a significant minority. Among Indians born overseas and living in the United States, about 60% are born in the US and about 40% have migrated from other countries. This number of second generation Indians will grow over time as the immigrant wave of the 1990s settles and has children in the United States.

This creates an interesting dilemma for the Indian community in the United States and often divides the community. Many universities, for example, have two Indian student associations – one consisting of immigrant students, the other formed by second generation students. These groups have different interests and forms of identification with India. While immigrant Indians are aware of social and political issues in India and often have strong opinions about it, the second generation have an attachment to Indian dance, music and other cultural icons as a way of building their own identify, but may or may not have a strong attachment to India herself.



The Statue of Liberty, designed to welcome immigrants to the American shores bears an inscription, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.’ But if we look at the Indian American population in the United States, it is not India’s huddled masses that have migrated, but rather her privileged. In fact, they are even more privileged than the native-born American white population. Part of this privilege stems from the nature of immigration policies. While an Indian marginal farmer may want to migrate to the United States, he is unlikely to get a visa. In order to get a visa, he must either prove his value to an American employer (while not taking away a job from an American citizen) or must have a close relative already in the United States. This has led to migration of skilled professionals and their families.

Table 1 compares Indian-Americans, white and black populations on educational attainment. Indians clearly have a strong educational advantage with only about 26% of whites above the age of 24 having completed at least a bachelor’s degree, as opposed to 63% of the Asian Indian population. The disparity between Indians and African Americans is even more striking with only 15% of black population having completed a BA or BS.



Educational Attainment of Indian American, White and Black Population Above Age 25 in the United States, 2000

Per cent with education…

Indian American



Below 9th Grade




9-12 Grade




Some College




Bachelor’s Degree




Master’s Degree




Professional Degree













This high education level is also reflected in the jobs Indian Americans hold. A majority of the Indian Americans consists of managers, engineers and computer or math professionals; many are doctors and health care specialists. At the same time, Indians are substantially less likely to be in occupations like military personnel, transportation and production workers, police, firemen, artists and writers than the white population.



Occupational Distribution of Indian American Population Above Age 25 in the United States, 2000







Business Specialists



Financial Specialist



Computer/Math Profess






Scientists (Physical & Social)



Social Services












Health care/doctors



Health care support/aids












Personal Service






Admin. Asst.












Production Workers



Transport Workers









Out of Labour Force







Although census data provide us with a broad categorization of the occupations Indian Americans engage in, it is at a narrower level of specialization that occupational concentration becomes more interesting. While Indian Americans can be found in many different fields of work, some fields seem to be particularly attractive to these immigrants.



Education and immigration restrictions explain Indian-American predominance in computer and information technology fields, but over and above these, social networks must play an important role in shaping the occupational choices of Indian Americans. How else can we explain the fact that so many motels are run by Gujaratis and North Indian taxi drivers dominate the New York taxi scene? The concentration of Dunkin Donut franchises in the hands of Gujarati families is particularly interesting, if often ignored. We have always wondered what draws Gujarati families to frying sweet doughnuts and have few answers. It may be that social networks make it easier for them to acquire franchises, or possibly working in a meatless environment is appealing, or that frying doughnuts seems akin to frying jalebis in the sweet marts of Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Indian high technology entrepreneurs were founders of only 3% of the technology companies started between 1980 and 1984, while they were running 10% of the technology companies started between 1995 and 2000 (Saxenian, 1999). Social networks organized by the entrepreneurial communities in the San Francisco Bay area (such as The Indus Entrepreneurs) often facilitate entrepreneurship among other members of the community.



Not surprisingly, Indian American households are also richer than other households. Our calculations, based on a 5% sample of people who filled out long forms in the 2000 census, show that the median2 income of Indian American households is substantially higher than that of the white or African-American population. In 2000, the white households of the United States3 had a median income of about $44,500, the African-American households had median income of $29,000 and the Indian-American households had a median income of about $63,500. Indian Americans have the highest household income among all racial and ethnic groups in America.



This higher income of Indian-American households is attributable to a number of factors. First, as discussed above, highly educated Indians migrate to the United States and take up better paying professional jobs. Two, like immigrants from other countries and continents (Portes, 2000), immigrant Indians also invest heavily in building their future – living frugally, obtaining higher education and credentials, taking risks in setting up new businesses. Indian Americans also carry forward the Indian extended family tradition and tend to live in larger households with more potential workers, increasing their overall household income.

Ironically, while Indian American men are rarely to be found without a job, the number of Indian American women in the labour force is far smaller than comparable age white or African American women. While more than 70% of the white women between ages of 25 and 60 work, only about 58% of the Indian-American women are employed. One can view this lower labour force participation on the part of Indian American women from different perspectives. An absence of work related external contacts and lack of social networks may reduce acculturation while maintaining the grip of patriarchy prevalent in Indian culture. At the same time, women’s ability to remain out of the labour force also reflects higher family income and greater availability of time to devote to childrearing.



The statistics presented above show Indian Americans to be a privileged community in America. This privilege is reflected in many different aspects of life including education, income, access to academic enrichment programmes for children, and living in lower crime neighbourhoods. One of the markers of this privilege is increasing attention directed towards Indian Americans by American politicians. Substantial contributions to Democratic as well as Republican candidates by Indian Americans has led to increasing clout of Indians in American politics, far beyond what their slender electoral strength entitles them.

However, this portrait of privilege masks many inequalities within the Indian American community and does disservice to the poor among the community. It is clear that the Indian American community is very diverse and while some Indian Americans are very wealthy, about 12.2% of Indian Americans live below the poverty line, slightly more than the figure for whites (11.9%). A focus on achievements of some often obscures the need of the others, particularly the elderly and the female household heads.

‘We came to the US with two suitcases, and look what we have achieved through hard work’ is a sentiment often reflected in much of the Indian American discourse. However, it underplays the privileged position of highly educated IITans and doctors even as they arrived in the US with only a few dollars in their pockets. Ignoring the role of their educational achievements and social networks often makes Indian Americans intolerant of other minorities’ struggles and distances them from other people of colour in the United States.

This distance is reflected in many aspects of their behaviour. Indian American shop owners may work in minority dominated areas of Chicago and Los Angeles, but they rarely live there. Affirmative action programmes geared to help African American and Hispanic students is often criticized by many Indian Americans and sometimes tends to position them against other people of colour rather than being a part of them. Dinesh DeSouza (2002) has emerged as one of strongest critics of affirmative action and he often draws on his vantage point as an immigrant from India to argue that affirmative action hurts and degrades African Americans.

This distance between Indian Americans and the disadvantaged sections of American society can easily make Indian Americans targets of racist attacks as experienced by Korean shop owners in the Los Angeles riots. Small scale incidents already occur in diverse locations including the dot buster incidents in New Jersey.



Indian Americans seem to be the best ambassadors for India in the United States. Their growing influence in American business and politics is reflected in the warm reception Prime Minister Vajpayee received from President Clinton on his 2000 visit, and relative even-handedness on the part of the Bush government in recent Indo-Pak disputes despite Pakistan being a major ally in the war on terrorism. However, how precisely Indian Americans use this influence remains to be seen. As described above, the Indian Americans are part of an elite group both within and outside India. This elite conservatism, when combined with distance from India, may well encourage them to take more conservative stands than what the progressive forces in India might desire. For example, when the Commission on Religious Freedom, an advisory body to the United States Congress, held its hearings on the Gujarat riots, some Indian Americans agitated to discredit its findings and to ensure the appointment of a Hindu to the commission.

The growing distance between the interests of first and second generation Indian Americans forms another axis along which faultlines have begun to emerge. Second generation Indian Americans often have a strong interest in Indian culture, dance, music and art, but their connection with socio-political realities of India remains limited and a few visits to grandparents and relatives is the sum total of their exposure to the realities of India. Ironically, many young Indian Americans try to learn about India through college courses and South Asian studies programmes but lack of study abroad programmes in Indian universities limit their ability to experience Indian realities first hand. Unless this distance can be bridged it seems likely that while future generations of Indian Americans will continue to connect with Indian culture, their connection with flesh and blood India will grow increasingly distant.



Dinesh DeSouza, Letters to a Young Conservative. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, ‘Entrepreneurship and Economic Progress in the Nineties: A Comparative Analysis of Immigrants and African Americans’ in Immigration and Ethnicity in the United States, edited by F. Bean and S. Bell-Rose. New York: Russell Sage, 2000.

Leela Prasad (ed.), Live Like the Banyan Tree: Images of the Indian American Experience. Philadelphia: Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1999.

A.L. Saxenian, Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 1999.

Daphne Spain, America’s Diversity: On the Edge of Two Centuries. Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 1999.



1. Interestingly even the modern day Indian Americans seem to find it difficult to be lumped with Asians from Japan, China and Vietnam. Most Asian studies programmes at universities and Asian Student Association draw far fewer Indians than Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese American students.

2. Median household income reflects the threshold at which 50 per cent of the household are above and 50 per cent are below that income level.

3. Includes Hispanic whites.