The Truth Behind Indian American Exceptionalism

Many of us are unaware of the special circumstances that eased our entry into American life—and of the bonds we share with other nonwhite groups.

illustration of wealthy Indian American family
Illustration by Trevor Davis; family photos courtesy of Arun Venugopal; other images by Federico Benocci / Eyeem / Getty; Tim Abramowitz / Getty; Michelle Marsan / Shutterstock

This article was published online on December 19, 2020.

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 Cadillac 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 Petersen, 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 nonwhite 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.

Vaishno Das Bagai, the son of a wealthy landowner in Peshawar, had arrived on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, in 1915 with his wife, their three sons, and $25,000 in gold. He became a naturalized citizen in 1921. But the revocation of his citizenship, in 1923, led to the liquidation of his property, including the store he owned. In 1928, despondent, he took his own life. “I came to America thinking, dreaming, and hoping to make this land my home,” he wrote in a farewell letter addressed to “the world at large,” which was published in the San Francisco Examiner. “Now what am I?”

Attitudes began to change during the Second World War. The U.S. began—selectively—to scrub exclusionary laws in a bid to build wartime alliances in Asia and to counter propaganda by Germany and Japan, which took aim at America’s grim racial history. Naturalization rights were extended to Chinese immigrants in 1943 and to immigrants from India and the Philippines in 1946. Japanese Americans were of course an exception—their loyalty questioned, they were rounded up during the war and interned in detention camps.

The nature of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. was always different from that of racism directed at Black Americans, which was much older than the nation. In sheer numerical terms, the Asian and Pacific Islander population was small—in 1940, it was one‑50th the size of the Black population. African Americans would fight for decades more to end legal segregation and secure voting rights, even as doors were thrown open for Asians.

As one nation after another shed its colonial overlord—the Philippines in 1946, India and Pakistan in 1947, Indonesia in 1949—the U.S. was in the delicate position of trying to expand its sphere of influence without perpetuating imperial optics. In her book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2011), the legal historian Mary Dudziak framed the issue pointedly:

How could American democracy be a beacon during the Cold War, and a model for those struggling against Soviet oppression, if the United States itself practiced brutal discrimination against minorities within its own borders?

The career of Dalip Singh Saund can be understood against this backdrop. Saund, a Democrat from California, was the first Indian American elected to Congress. In 1956, he narrowly defeated the Republican candidate, Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, a pioneering pilot and the first woman to break the sound barrier. She found it hard to believe that she had lost to “a Hindu,” and never ran for office again. Saund was in fact Sikh. He had arrived in the U.S. in 1920, at the height of anti-Asian sentiment, and received a doctorate in mathematics, but had gone on to become a successful farmer (and a justice of the peace). Early on, he wore a turban, but at some point he stopped. The images we have of him in later years show a dashing man in dark suits. In one photo, he flashes a rakish smile while greeting then-Senator John F. Kennedy. He represented a new kind of mid-century American.

Saund’s election was a big enough deal that a CBS television crew shadowed him on his first day in office. The House Foreign Affairs Committee sent Saund on an international tour to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. Saund said he wished to “present myself as a living example of American democracy in practice.” He and the committee hoped to counter, as Saund put it, “the Communist lie that racial prejudice against Asians is rampant in America.”

In 1959, Saund sat for a TV interview at WCKT, in Miami. The host introduced him, breathlessly, as “probably the most unforgettable character I have ever met. The son of parents in faraway India who could neither read nor write, Judge Saund sits now with dignity and works with skill in the Congress of the United States.” The interviewer seemed to be saying, See how far you have come. See how far we have brought you. But Saund more than held his own.

In 1965, Congress made sweeping changes to U.S. immigration law. Part of the impetus was greater equity, but there was also pressure, in a Cold War context, from dozens of newly independent nations in Asia and Africa. The U.S. did away with the admittance formula that had heavily favored immigrants from Western Europe. The new legislation also prioritized family reunification and professional skills, and Asian immigrants ultimately leveraged both to their advantage. When the legislation was passed, no one anticipated how radically it would alter the country’s demographics.

Nor did my parents understand the extent to which their own lives and fortunes would be transformed when they arrived in this country. They had fled a slow, lumbering economy, one derided by Western skeptics for its “Hindu rate of growth.” My father’s decision to move to the U.S. with my mother was at once an act of economic necessity and a sign of his intense ambition. The image of his sobbing parents and younger siblings upon their departure for the airport has stayed with him to this day. “It was like a death in the family,” he recalled in his self-published memoir, My Mother Called Me Unni: A Doctor’s Tale of Migration.

This scene played out in thousands of families as many of India’s best and brightest left for the U.S. From 1966 to 1977, according to the historian Vijay Prashad, about 20,000 scientists immigrated from India to the United States, along with 40,000 engineers and 25,000 physicians. The majority spoke English and came from upper-caste communities (as my parents did). The composition of the diaspora was representative of only a narrow slice of India: people who had the social capital and intellectual means to succeed far from home, and who had the resources to make the journey in the first place.

The result was an intense form of social engineering, but one that went largely unacknowledged. Immigrants from India, armed with degrees, arrived after the height of the civil-rights movement, and benefited from a struggle that they had not participated in or even witnessed. They made their way not only to cities but to suburbs, and broadly speaking were accepted more easily than other nonwhite groups have been.

I don’t recall hearing the name Dalip Singh Saund until I was in my 30s, well after I’d left Houston. Nor had I heard of Vaishno Das Bagai or Bhagat Singh Thind. These names were absent from my childhood. It was as if the entire history that preceded my family’s arrival, the messy parts, had been snipped off. The year 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended, was our Year Zero.

My parents arrived in this country in the waning days of 1969. They first settled in Washington, D.C., then moved to Connecticut, and finally put down roots in Texas. In a recent text thread with my two sisters, they recalled the excitement of moving into the Piney Point home—the trees, the serenity. “But I didn’t perceive it at the time as moving up in the world,” Kala wrote. Subconsciously, though, we understood the new rules. We began to demand brand-name clothes—Izod and Polo—something my mother told us, years later, that she regretted giving in to.

In his memoir, my father recounted what he saw as my mother’s evolution, and her awkwardness.

For a girl who grew up without parents, in a laid-back Kerala village with only one street, a big river, and three temples scattered across clusters of ancestral homes, Devi tried her very best to be Americanized. Exchanging her favorite sarees, she made attempts to dress in evening gowns and mink coats and leather boots. From her preciously nourished, long, braided hairstyles with tucked-in jasmine garlands she half-heartedly learned to put up her hair on the top or to the fancy of the stylists.

I called Mom and asked her what she had felt about her adjustments back then. “That’s all Dad’s fancies, you know. I had to go along with it. To have peace. And I thought, These are the things you have to do.” As kids, we had been proud of our mother the tennis star, the woman who taught herself to ride a bike in her 30s. I hadn’t considered the strain placed upon her—by her kids, by her husband, by the world beyond our home—as she attempted to fit herself and her family into this new place.

In many ways, my sisters and I had an exalted childhood. We traveled abroad, to Paris, Lucerne, Venice, and Tokyo, with frequent visits to see our relatives in India. Even as a young brown man, I felt secure. My parents never had to give me “the talk” that many Black teenagers receive. At the same time, I knew better than to expose my family life, even something as simple as the food in our refrigerator, to the judgment of the white world. Some people in that world, I realized, thought we were going to hell, that our food stank, that our customs were freakish.

Recently I looked up the current census data for Piney Point: The city is 85 percent white and 12 percent Asian. The Black population, however, stands at 0.6 percent—virtually nonexistent, as it has been for decades. The historian Uzma Quraishi, who has studied the residential patterns of middle-class Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the Houston area in the 1970s and ’80s, found that they track almost identically with those of white residents who left the central urban area for more affluent neighborhoods on the outskirts, ostensibly so their kids could attend “good schools” but also to distance themselves from Black residents. She calls this process “brown flight.” Those of us with roots in the Indian subcontinent had it drilled into us from an early age that “divide and rule” had been the most potent tool of the colonial power. As immigrants, had we become complicit in this same strategy?

During the pandemic this spring, my parents were stuck in Kerala and watched, bewildered, as America seemed to implode, and not just from disease and economic distress. Police killings of unarmed Black Americans inspired national outrage and protest; a backlash led by armed white counterprotesters was quick in coming. I communicated with them by email and WhatsApp. On one occasion, I asked Dad what had prompted him and Mom to move to Piney Point, back in the ’70s. “Perhaps,” he ventured in reply, “the American dream.”

That “perhaps” reflected the fact that many years had passed and memories were foggy. But I think it also reflected something else: that the American narrative is not nearly as neat and linear in his mind as it had appeared when he arrived here, months after the U.S. had put a man on the moon. The American dream doesn’t mean what it once did to a newcomer.

In 2017, just a few weeks into the Trump presidency, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian-born engineer, was killed at a bar in a Kansas City suburb. The killer had shouted: “Get out of my country.” Not long after, I found myself on an email thread with my dad and a few of his good friends, or “uncles,” as we refer to them, all retired Indian American doctors around the age of 80. They understood that the position of Indian Americans was in many ways privileged, and that threats were sporadic. But they were worried. “The more noise we make, these racists will be awakened, who may never have heard of Hindus and their customs,” wrote one. “Fighting them alone may get us under six feet.” The only thing to do, he said, was lie low. Despite all their success, and nearly 50 years of living in the U.S., the uncles were reacting as if their Americanness remained tentative and conditional.

Like most of their Indian-immigrant peers, the uncles came from historically advantaged communities. This had helped them emerge from India’s ferocious academic system victorious, allowed them to leap across continents and flourish professionally, and enabled them to isolate themselves in America’s best and whitest neighborhoods.

It did not, however, prepare them for a fight—or for the realization that they were not in this alone.

This article appears in the January/February 2021 print edition with the headline “The Making of a Model Minority.”