Indians in America: the othered 1%

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New Delhi | Published: July 16, 2018 4:38:14 AM

The threatened narrowing of what it means to be American, going beyond any individual, no matter how prominent, will adversely affect Indian Americans, whatever their social status or income level.

Indian Americans are extremely successful in material terms.

As Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and I documented in our book, The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Indian Americans are extremely successful in material terms. They are also highly educated, and this is an important reason for their success. Their educational status is largely determined by selection processes at work in India and in the US immigration process. The current immigration policy narrative seems to support the idea of restricting immigration to those with substantial education and skills, which would seem consistent with the policies that brought many immigrants from India. But the new, looming, or argued-for restrictions on employment visas (the H1-B) on immigration through family preference, and on immigrants from countries that do not fit certain racial or ethnic models indicate a more complex story developing, one which is not positive for Indian Americans of any income or education level.

One of the messages of our book was that Indians in America were “selected for success,” but still faced challenges of adapting, and of overcoming stereotypes in areas such as entrepreneurship and corporate leadership. But we wrote before the 2016 presidential election, and much has happened since then, especially a resurgence of a nativism that seemed to have been dying out. Racial and ethnic fault lines, both domestic and cross-border, have been consciously exacerbated by president Trump, during his campaign and in office. On the immigration front, there are several threads of this rekindled narrative. One is with respect to immigration from south of the border, which plays on fears of job displacement among the white working class. Another mingles concerns about jobs with racial anxieties. His derogatory references to Africa (which align with his reluctance to condemn domestic white supremacists), juxtaposed with the invocation of Norway as a preferred source of immigration, rightly provoked condemnation, but have not derailed proposals to restrict immigration from certain countries, nor the gutting of family reunification as a route for immigration. A rational debate about these issues is possible, but is replaced by fear mongering. Of course,Trump and many around him are farming in the fertile soil of global anxieties about immigration that include concerns about physical and not just economic security.

Tellingly, president Trump did not directly focus on the skills of immigrants, but used the economic status of their home countries as an undifferentiated marker for determining their desirability as residents and eventually citizens of the United States. He did not say that the US could welcome more skilled immigrants from China or India, two much larger (and therefore likely) pools for the skills the US will need as technology changes the structure of the economy and global competition intensifies. But, this is not surprising. In a 2015 interview on Breitbart, both Steve Bannon (later, a close adviser) and Trump articulated nativist positions. Bannon asked Trump about foreign students returning to their respective countries after attending school in the US, rather than staying in the US and working at or starting companies, and Trump seemed to imply that they should not come in the first place, “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” to which Bannon followed up with, “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from south Asia or from Asia, I think a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

It is difficult to say how many people in the US would secretly agree with Bannon’s openly expressed views pushing for cultural (and racial) homogeneity, but the position implicit or explicit in these views goes far beyond concerns with issues like abuses of the H1-B visa program. At the core are fundamental differences about what “being American” means.

The era ushered in by Trump represents a challenge to an expansion of the American collective imagination, of what it means to be “American.” This goes beyond the more obvious consequences of immigrants (from south Asia or elsewhere) being killed, assaulted, or choosing to leave the country, or choosing not to come at all. Our research on Indian American immigration has taught us that such a broadening of perspective and self-identification has never been without contestation and opposition, and has affected many immigrant ethnic groups, including those who are now unquestioningly accepted as “mainstream,” including the Irish, Italians, Jews and many others. The process in the past involved greater pressures for assimilation, and for anglicisation in particular. Those pressures had receded, but are being revived and exacerbated under the new regime.

Not every Indian American shares our perspective on the direction of American society. We discussed this diversity of views in our book, and it partly reflects the multiple fault lines in the US as a large, increasingly diverse country. But, I would argue that the threatened narrowing of what it means to be American, going beyond immigration policy alone,and beyond any individual, no matter how prominent, will adversely affect Indian Americans, whatever their social status or income level, and irrespective of whether they immigrated, or were born in the US. The title of our book was a play on the fact that Indian Americans are about one percent of the US population, and have been extraordinarily successful. But, the “other” can have a different connotation, and to speak of being “othered” makes that unpleasant condition clear.


The author is Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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