The history of Asian Indians in the United States has been 400 years in the making

Past, Present, & Positives: The History of Asian Indians in the United States

Pranav Guru

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Growing up, going from childhood to adult, and experiencing everyday life can feel like walking on a balance beam. Anyone who’s ever been able to successfully cross a balance beam knows that you need to keep both sides of your body in equilibrium with your center of gravity.

For Indian Americans, the balance often involves maintaining both your family’s Indian culture as well as your own goals of a happy, successful, and All-American life.

As I’ve learned through personal experience as a first-generation Indian American, the community of Indian Americans (which includes both birthright and naturalized citizens) still faces a major obstacle to this day;

Underrepresentation.

Celebrated novelist and storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may have given one of the most famous TED Talks in 2009, entitled “The danger of a single story”. After reflecting on her life as a Nigerian-born immigrant, she remarked, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.’’

Growing up in Chicago and going to school felt perfectly idyllic at first, until I started receiving the age-old strange Q&A from other students starting at the age of eight.

“Are you gonna have an arranged marriage?”, “Do you worship cows?”, “What does the red dot mean?”, “You smell like curry”, “Can you do my math homework?”, “Thank you, come again”, and the classic “Where are you REALLY from?”

Remarks every Indian American has heard in their life. They aren’t exactly offensive or insensitive. But they do speak volumes about the past, present, and future of everyday life as an Asian Indian in the United States.

As a child, I noticed a few things regarding the representation of our community. For a while, the only Indian-American character in entertainment was the infamous Apu on The Simpsons. Additionally, it seemed that whenever our community was the subject of a mainstream media segments, it was to cover the child prodigy entering college at 14, the latest Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, yet another STEM genius, or some old rich man on trial for white-collar crime.

But now that I’ve grown up, I’ve come to terms with this. As a student with education in history, I’ve always believed the classic quote by philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”, as well as the iconic Gandhi quote; “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

In an era were political stigmas have been attached to the subjects of race and immigration, I feel the best way to heal past and present wounds is to learn a major lesson from the past: The history of Asian Indians in America, like any other race of immigrants, has been centuries in the making, and tells the true story of the brave individuals risking it all to leave their motherland for a better life in the All-American melting pot of opportunity.

It all began in the year A.D. 1635, when the first “East Indian”, according to the East India Company, was brought to the American colony in Jamestown, Virginia. They would be used as servants and indentured laborers. During this time, the colonial anti-miscegenation laws outlawed interracial marriage and interpersonal relationships. As a result, children born to white colonists and laborers of color, including those from India, would be sold into slavery. Over a century later, in spite of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the introduction of the U.S. Constitution, the Naturalization Act of 1790 detailed the citizenship rules for the new independent nation. Now, only free whites could obtain citizenship.

Over a century passed and it seemed like those from India could never make a life for themselves in the States. Between 1820 and 1900, it’s been estimated that only 716 people of Indian origin or descent lived in the nation. But throughout the 1800s, India faced its own battle with colonialism. Under the rule of the East India Company and eventually the British Empire, farmers across India struggled due to heavy colonial taxation as well as severe droughts and famines. Eventually, during the 1890s, a brave group of Sikh farmers from present-day Punjab made their way to new lives in the West Coast. After arriving in Angel Island, they settled in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, laboring in farms and factories in hopes of sending their personal profits to their families back home. Some even settled in present-day British Columbia. Additionally, the iconic Indian spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda was welcomed to Chicago for the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions. His teachings of Hindu values through his Vedanta society, as well as the presence of Indians in America, led to a new interest in Eastern religions among those who were already citizens of their adopted home.

But challenges began to rise. American citizens began resenting the economic competition from Indian immigrant, and anti-Indian riots and protests occurred across the West Coast. These acts of anti-Indian sentiment included the 1907 Bellingham riots, racial discrimination in British Columbia that prompted numerous Indians to cross the border into America, and the ethnic slur “hindoo” that targeted Indian immigrants (although majority of Indians in America were Sikhs). As a result, numerous laws were instituted against Indian immigrants. In 1913, California’s Alien Land Act prohibited all Asian immigrants from owning land. In 1917, the federal Barred Zone Act prohibited any more Asian immigrants from entering the country (passing through Congress and overriding a veto from President Woodrow Wilson). With immigrant into and out of America now no longer an option for Indians, several would be separated from their families and could not return home to marry or start families. Furthermore, insult to injury was added by the anti-miscegenation laws of numerous states that prohibited white Americans from marrying people of color. However, several immigrants, including Indians, got around the system by marrying fellow non-citizens who were Hispanic or black. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, interracial marriage and Punjabi-Mexican mixed-race families became a norm on the West Coast.

In 1909, Bhicaji Balsara made history as the first Indian-born, American-naturalized citizen. He contested his right for American citizenship in New York court after informing judges of his Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian of Persian lineage) descent. Eventually, the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1910 that since the Middle Eastern roots of Parsis classified them as Caucasian, they could become U.S. citizens. This resulted in over 100 Indians becoming naturalized citizens over the next decade. This victory was short-lived, however, as the 1923 Supreme Court Case of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind made Indians ineligible for naturalized citizenship. Several Indians had their citizenship revoked, with some even making the choice to leave America. It seemed bleak for the Indian community through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. But Indians continued coming to America during this time, especially to participate in academic research. Dhan Gopal Mukerji attended UC Berkeley before going on to become an acclaimed author and winner of the 1928 Newbery Medal. Additionally, fellow UC Berkeley graduate Gobind Behari Lal joined the staff of the San Francisco Examiner and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work in journalism. Yellapragada Subbarow arrived in the U.S. in 1922 and became a revolutionary biochemist at Harvard. Although Subbarow was denied tenure at the university due to his race, he is remembered today for his research in adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and cancer treatment.

The conclusion of the second Second World War, a wave of change was spurred worldwide that would affect every country that sent troops into battle. In India, where troops fought on behalf of the United Kingdom, Gandhi and the nonviolent independence revolution eventually resulted in the country’s own declaration of independence from the war-weary British crown. Meanwhile, the United States had served the war with racially segregated units of soldiers. But the new worldwide interest in freedom that shook the world post-war resulted in massive change occurring in the United States. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act, permitting 100 Asian immigrants to enter the nation per year and reversing the Supreme Court decision of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind. Now, all Indian Americans were finally eligible to become American citizens. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act repealed the Barred Zone Act and increased the Asian immigration quota to 2,000 arrivals per year. Noticeably during this time period, Indian immigrants began settling all over the United States as opposed to just the West Coast. But it would take yet another iconic and turbulent period in the United States to bring civil rights for all Indian Americans:

The Civil Right Movement.

The Indian independence revolution and American civil rights movement had one thing in common: Nonviolence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, just like the late Gandhi, was determined to bring racial equality for African Americans by expressing as much pacifism as possible. Through the ups and downs, civil rights activists slowly progressed towards the end of racial segregation as laws and court rulings tilted in favor of ending racial discrimination in as many ways possible. Finally, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and signed the historic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (unsurprisingly, one year later) that finally gave the right to immigrate to and obtain citizenship in the United States.

It’s probably not the best context to include this, but as the saying goes, “and the rest is history”. The laws passed in favor of Indian Americans during the Civil Rights Movement have seemingly given the community the voice it had longed for since first reaching America centuries before.

The story of Asian Indians coming to America is like any other immigration history; a classic chronology of oppression and struggle followed by progress. While the Indian-American community, which consists of over 4 million naturalized and birthright citizens (and counting), has been underrepresented at best and stereotypically represented at worst, it would be remiss to not point out the advancements our community has made. What better way than to point out the community’s history-making game changers?

Just three years after the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, Hargobind Khorana became the first Indian-American Nobel laureate. After years of pioneering biological research of protein synthesis, he was a co-recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (followed by 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics laureate Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar). Artistically, Kim Thayil, known today as the guitarist and co-founder of the rock band Soundgarden, became the first Indian American to win a Grammy Award in 1994. In 2006, Indra Nooyi was named CEO of PepsiCo, became the first Indian-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Nooyi has since been followed by multiple CEOs including Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Google’s Sundar Pichai. Politically, Bobby Jindal was elected Governor of Louisiana in 2007, becoming the first Indian American U.S. Governor. In 2017, California’s Kamala Harris became the first Indian American to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

While we have yet to see an Indian American Oscar winner, federal judge, or President of the United States, we can trust it’ll happen with time. In an era heavily influenced by the silver screen, Indian-American representation has improved from Apu to Mindy Lahiri, Alex Parrish, and Dev Patel’s portrayal of Saroo Brierley. Our community has used its voice to influence the push of opportunities to be seen. In spite of the occasional pushbacks, the trajectory is positive.

If I could travel back in time without creating a Flashpoint and bringing cataclysmic effects to the present (what up, reference to The Flash), I would tell my eight-year-old self not to worry about stereotypical questions or comments from the other kids, and that it’s simply because they simply don’t understand the past that your community got through to shape the present.

Studying history has taught me two things: Patterns from the past have shaped the present, and patterns from the past AND present will shape the future. The history of immigration to the United States has shaped America into a land of opportunity, and what we choose to make of that opportunity now will affect our country in the future.

So learn from the past and make a change. Unless you want to repeat the past and feel the need to make the same change in the future that you might as well make now.

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