While people of Indian descent in America are often seen as a monolith—the high-earning and highly educated manifestation of the model minority myth—a June 2021 report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has highlighted the internal diversity of the United States’ Indian population, along with shared experiences of discrimination.
The third paper in a three-part series on Indian Americans, the report examines views held by Indian Americans based on data from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS). The poll, conducted online by YouGov in September 2020 with a sample population of 1,200 Indian Americans, asked a range of questions regarding identity, religion, partisan affiliation, social networks, discrimination, and more.
Carnegie’s report saliently discusses the surprising internal diversity of lived experiences and social realities of Indian-origin individuals in the United States. As author Sumitra Badrinathan explained in a recent panel event, although many Indian Americans have achieved success in American society, this model minority narrative masks both the diversity of the group’s lived experiences and the significant problems many of its members face. The data reveals high levels of political polarization among Indian Americans, reflecting similar trends across American society. Additionally, the report indicates that societal divisions in India are being reproduced in Indian American communities, including social distance between Indians of different religions, castes, and Indian partisan political affiliations. Indian Americans even disagree about the term “Indian American,” with only four in 10 participants stating that this label best describes them.
Though Indian immigrants have been present in the United States since at least the early 19th century, major immigration from India did not begin until the abolition of the national origin quota system in 1965 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Since then, the number of Indian-origin individuals in the United States has ballooned to 4.3 million, and Indian immigrants have become the second-largest immigrant group in the country, comprising 6% of the entire foreign-born population. However, outside of traditional demographic measures like income and education, there has been surprisingly little systematic study of Indian Americans’ lives and social experiences.
Despite the internal diversity of America’s Indian-origin population, the report found several commonalities as well. Indian Americans inhabit social networks that are relatively endogenous and display high rates of inter-group marriage. Unfortunately, many Indians also share the experience of experiencing discrimination, with one in two reporting being discriminated against in the past year. In the panel event, the authors linked this to both the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and ongoing Islamophobia since 9/11—which often targets Indian Americans regardless of religion.
The report closes with a caution about the increasingly sharp divides represented in the 2020 IAAS data: “There are also nascent signs that these common bonds are being tested as religious cleavages, generational divides, and political polarization invite fragmentation... The currents coursing their way through the Indian diaspora are perhaps reflective not only of broader developments in American society but also … the turbulence afflicting India.” Data is vital to understanding these changes in the Indian American community, their ties to India, and the future of people of Indian origin in America.
Paul Sullivan is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a second-year graduate student in the Master of Human Rights
program at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with a
concentration in Migration & Transpacific Studies.