In 1978, several years after leaving India and coming to Texas, my parents decided to move out of our middle-class neighborhood in southwest Houston. Our new home, a few miles away, was a custom-designed contemporary structure on a one-acre lot in the exclusive Piney Point Village, population 3,419, a community that vies for the title of “richest city in Texas.” We had a swimming pool and a three-car garage, where my dad, an immaculately tailored allergist, parked his silver Cadil lac and my mom parked her ivory Mercedes. We had, quite clearly, arrived.
Like countless other immigrants, my parents had come to the United States, in 1969, with little cash in hand. Within a few years, my devout Hindu mother, orphaned at an early age, had switched from a sari to tennis skirts and was competing at Houston’s swankiest clubs. My father, who hadn’t owned a pair of shoes until he was 10, was buying season tickets to the Houston Symphony, where he promptly fell asleep during every performance.
Our world was filled with Indian doctors and engineers. We never stopped to ask why their entrance into American society had been so rapid. We simply accepted that their success was a combination of immigrant pluck and the right values: Indians were family-oriented, education-oriented, and work-oriented.
There was a term for our place in the country’s racial order: model minority. The concept is generally traced to a 1966 article in The New York Times Magazine by the sociologist William Peter sen, which focused on Japanese Americans; the basic idea was extended to other Asian Americans. Of course, the notion of “model minorities” comes with a flip side—“problem minorities.” The terminology took on life at a time of intense social unrest: race riots across the country, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the emergence of Richard Nixon’s racially charged “southern strategy.” Many Americans were losing what faith they may have had in the possibility of racial equality.
Today, it’s easy to take for granted the measures of Indian American success: the ubiquity of the “Dr. Patel” stereotype; the kids who, year in and year out, dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee; a vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian; and, most notably, the median annual household income, which is among the highest of any group. Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, whose parents arrived in the U.S. in the late ’60s, summed up one prevailing view this way: “Mostly we’re just good at being Americans.”
What is forgotten is that before Indian Americans became a model minority, we were regarded as a problem minority. Also forgotten is the extent to which the U.S. engineered the conditions that allowed certain non-white groups to thrive.
This is a reality to which Indian Americans themselves often seem blind. From the comfortable perspective of university towns and tech hubs and white-dominated suburbs, Indian Americans do not see what they have in common with other nonwhite Americans—as if life in a bubble were truly possible, and as if the idea of common interest with other groups were unseemly.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, after the Exclusion Act halted most immigration from China, North American employers in need of laborers turned to India, among other places. As Erika Lee notes in her 2015 book, The Making of Asian America, leaflets blanketed the Punjabi countryside promising “opportunities of fortune-making”—typically a wage of $2 a day if a man was strong. As their numbers grew, Indian immigrants, primarily working as farm laborers or lumberjacks, came to be considered “the least desirable of all races.” Nativists warned of a “tide of turbans.” The immigrants were overwhelmingly men, and were legally prevented from bringing over a wife or children. Subject to anti-miscegenation laws, the unmarried frequently found spouses in the Hispanic or Black communities.
In 1920, a court in Oregon granted citizenship to a man named Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant who had served in the U.S. Army during the First World War. A naturalization examiner objected, and the issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Citing immigration and naturalization law of the time, the Court in 1923 ruled that Thind was not white in “the understanding of the common man” and denied him citizenship. In 1924, the U.S. passed the draconian Johnson-Reed Act, the last of a series of laws that effectively closed the door to immigrants from Asian countries.
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