Racial classification of Indian Americans

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Racial classification of Indian** immigrants by the U.S. judiciary[1][2]
Year Case Judgment Rationale Applicant's Ethnicity
1909 In Bhicaji Balsara white congressional intent Parsi[3]
1910 U.S. v. Dolla White** Ocular inspection of skin Afghan born in India[3]
1910 U.S. v. Bhicaji Balsara White scientific evidence, congressional intent Parsi[3]
1913 In re Akhay Kumar Mozumdar White legal precedent "high-caste" North Indian "Aryan"[4]
1917 In re Sadar Bhagwab Singh not White common knowledge, congressional intent "Hindu",[5] no reference to caste[3]
1919 In re Mohan Singh White scientific evidence, legal precedent "high caste Hindu" "Aryan"[3][6]
1920 In re Thind White legal precedence "high caste Hindu", born in Punjab[7]
1923 U.S. v. Thind not White common knowledge, congressional intent "high caste Hindu", born in Punjab[7]
1923 U.S. v. Akhay Kumar Mozumdar not White legal precedent "high-caste" North Indian "Aryan"[4]
1925 U.S. v. Ali not White*** common knowledge "Arabian" from the Punjab[8]
1928 U.S. v. Gokhale not White legal precedent "Aryan Hindu of high caste"[9]
1939 Wadia v. U.S. not White common knowledge Parsi[10]
1942 Kharaiti Ram Samras v. U.S. not White legal precedent born in Manko[disambiguation needed], Punjab, India[11]
** Court opinions and decisions on the racial classification of Asian Indians. Visual Inspection of skin of Mixed race, Caucasian and Native Indian.
*** 1925 decision ruled specifically against Punjabis while other rulings were generally regarding all Indians, which is understood to have meant all those originally from South Asia.

The racial classification of Indian Americans has varied over the years and across institutions.[12] Originally, neither the courts nor the census bureau classified Indian Americans as a race because there were only negligible numbers of Indian immigrants in the United States. Various court judgements instead deemed Indians to be "White" or "not White" for the purposes of law. In 1970, in the most recent assignment, the U.S. Census Bureau designated Asian Indians as White.[13] Since 1980, while keeping the validity of its earlier designation (White), the U.S. Census Bureau further allowed Indian Americans to self-report their ethnicity,[14] owing to the immense diversity of the Indian subcontinent, which is home to more than 2000 different ethnic groups[15] and all the racial groups known to mankind.[16] Only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity of the nation of India.[17] The decision to let Indian Americans self-identify was made both in light of the aforementioned diversity in India, which has all the different racial groups represented in its diverse population, in addition to accommodate the fact that in recent years, increasingly diverse racial and ethnic groups of Indians and South Asians have immigrated to the United States, including from the North-West of the Indian subcontinent, where Caucasian ethnic groups are found.[16]

Initial perceptions[edit]

The earliest Indian immigrants into the United States were called "Hindoos" even though the majority of them were Sikhs. Court clerks classified these early immigrants from the Punjab region as being "white", "brown" or "black" based on their skin color for the purpose of marriage licenses. In addition to being racialized by their color, they were also racialized as being "foreigners".[12] The perception of Indian Americans as foreigners, on the other hand, often helped provide for better treatment, especially in states where de jure segregation was in place. Regardless of their skin color, as "foreign internationals," Indians most often used 'White-Only' facilities, a privilege which they would not have been granted otherwise. As opposed to being seen as "negro," or "brown," they were seen as outside of the traditional American racial spectrum, and consequently freed from some of the encumbrances that system entailed.[18][19][20]

U.S. courts[edit]

Throughout much of the 20th century, U.S. courts classified Indians as both "White" and "non-White". Each ruling was for individuals from different ethnic and racial groups of the subcontinent, reflecting the variability in the resulting decisions. In 1909, Bhicaji Balsara became the first Indian to gain U.S. citizenship, as a Parsi he was ruled to be "the purest of Aryan type" and "as distinct from Hindus as are the English who dwell in India”. Almost thirty years later, the same Circuit Court to accept Balsara ruled that Rustom Dadabhoy Wadia, another Parsi also from Bombay was not white and thefore not eligible to receive U.S. citizenship.[21] In 1923, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that while Indians were Caucasians and that anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as "White" Americans, people of Indian descent were not "White" men, and thus not eligible to citizenship.[22] The court conceded that, while Thind was a high caste Hindu born in the northern Punjab region and classified by certain scientific authorities as of the Aryan race, he was not "White" since the word Aryan "has to do with linguistic and not necessarily with physical characteristics" and since "the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences" between Indians and white Americans. The court also clarified that the decision did not reflect or imply anything related to racial superiority or inferiority, but merely an observable difference.[23] At the time, this decision retroactively stripped Indians of citizenship and land rights. The ruling also placated the Asiatic Exclusion League demands, spurned by growing outrage at the Turban Tide / Hindoo Invasion (sic) alongside the pre-existing outrage at the Yellow Peril. As they became classified as non-whites, Indian Americans were banned by anti-miscegenation laws from marrying white Americans in the states of Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia.[24]

In 1935, Thind relied on his status as a veteran of the United States military during World War I to petition for naturalization through the State of New York under the Nye-Lea Act, which made World War I veterans eligible for naturalization regardless of race. The government objected his latest petition, but Thind was finally granted American citizenship; Yet the Government attempted to revoke it after nearly two decades from his first petition for naturalization.[25]

In 1946, Congress, beginning to recognize that India would soon be independent, passed a new law that allowed Indians to become citizens and also established an immigration quota for the same.[23]

U.S. Census[edit]

The U.S. Census Bureau has changed over the years its own classification of Indians. In the 1930 and 1940 censuses, "Hindu" was listed as a racial category.[26] In 1970, the U.S Census Bureau designated Indian Americans as "White".[13] During the 1970s, Indian Americans debated if they should "give up the emotional and psychological advantages of being considered 'Caucasian'" to try to "seek or accept minority status".[3] Indian American groups, through their own petitioning, successfully changed their racial classification from White to Asian in the 1970s to have themselves included in state and federal Asian racial categories to benefit from affirmative action.[27] Specifically, Indian Americans had their official race changed from White to Asian in 1977 "through Statistical Directive 15 of the Office of Management and Budget", causing Indian Americans to be listed as Asian in the 1980 US Census.[12] Without the action of these Indian American groups, the government would have continued to classify Indian Americans as being White.[27] Since 1980, owing to the diverse nature of South Asians, Indians and other South Asians have been classified according to self-reporting, and have the liberty to identify with the racial and ethnic group that they belong to,[14] with an increasing number identifying as "White", driven by increasing immigration from the North-West of the Indian subcontinent.[27]

National Origin and Race[27]
Race Selected on 1990 US Census (%)
South Asian
Nationality N White Black 'Asian Indian' box Nationality
Indian 2,090 4.3% 2.2% 88.8% 1.2% 3.5%
Pakistani 299 6.7% 0.3% 25.8% 65.9% 1.3%
Bangladeshi 53 1.9% 0.0% 43.4% 50.9% 3.8%
Sri Lankan 38 7.9% 0.0% 26.3% 65.8% 0.0%
Total 2,480 4.6% 1.9% 79.3% 11.1% 3.2%
Source: IPUMS 1990 1% unweighted sample


Since 1980, owing to the diverse nature of South Asians, Indians and other South Asians have been classified according to self-reporting.[14] In the 1990 US Census, 65% of second generation South Asian Americans identified themselves using a South Asian term, 25% identified themselves as White and 5% identified themselves as Black.[27] In recent years, an increasing number of Indians are identified as "White" due to increasing immigration from the North-West of the Indian subcontinent, which is home to Caucasian ethnic groups within the country.[27] Nikki Haley, the Indian American governor of South Carolina, whose parents are from Punjab in North-West India, identified as White on her voter registration card in 2001.[28]

Both South Asian Americans and other types of Asian Americans mutually feel that there exists "profound racial difference" between themselves and the other group. Furthermore, "Working-class or state school-educated second generation Indian Americans do not see a natural alliance or unity with other Asian American groups."[27]

The 1990 U.S. Census classified write-in responses of "Aryan" as white even though write-in responses of "Indo-Aryan" were counted as Asian, and the 1990 US Census classified write-in responses of "Parsi" under Iranian American, who are classified as White along with Arab Americans and other Middle Eastern Americans.[29]

Some Indian Americans who were unfamiliar with the ethnonymic conventions used in the United States, mistakenly indicated that they were "American Indian" as their race in the 1990 US Census, because they were unaware that this term is used in the United States to refer to Native Americans.[27]

The Asian American Institute proposed that the 2000 US Census make a new Middle Easterner racial category and the Punjabi from Pakistan wanted Pakistani Americans to be included in it.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lopez, Ian Haney (1996). White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press. 
  2. ^ White by Law: How the U.S. Courts Established the White Race (Excerpted from White By Law). (2015). Model Minority. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from link
  3. ^ a b c d e f Banks, T.L. (1998). Both Edges of the Margin: Blacks and Asians in Mississippi Masala, Barriers to Coalition Building. In Asian American Law Journal. Volume 5. Article 2. pp. 19 - 22.
  4. ^ a b Howard, D. (2006). A.K. Mozumdar. Yesterday's Evangelist from India. Retrieved on October 31, 2015, from link
  5. ^ The Federal Reporter: with key number annotations. Volume 246. (1918). St. Paul: West Publishing, Co. pp. 500.
  6. ^ The Federal Reporter: With Key-Number Annotations. Volume 257. (1919). St. Paul: West Publishing, Co. pp. 209 & 212.
  7. ^ a b United States v. Thind. (2015). Casetext.Retrieved November 1, 2015, from link
  8. ^ United States v. Ali. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link
  9. ^ United States v. Gokhale. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  10. ^ Wadia v. United States. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  11. ^ Kharaiti Ram Samras v. United States. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  12. ^ a b c Harpalani, Vinay, DesiCrit: Theorizing the Racial Ambiguity of South Asian Americans (August 12, 2013). 69 NYU Annual Survey of American Law 77 (2013); Chicago-Kent College of Law Research Paper No. 2013-30. pp. 123, 124 & 136. Available at SSRN: link
  13. ^ a b Espiritu, Yen (1993). "Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities". American Journal of Sociology. 99 (3): 796–798. JSTOR 2781307. 
  14. ^ a b c Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United States Working Paper no. 76 (2005); see footnote 6 in paper
  15. ^ US Department of State (17 April 2012). "Background Note: India". 
  16. ^ a b Bhasin, M.K. Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Elements in Indian Population
  17. ^ India, a Country Study United States Library of Congress, Note on Ethnic groups
  18. ^ New York Times. "Negro Pastor Traveled in the South in Turban". New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2016. 
  19. ^ Clerk, Cecil. "AskHistorians: How were Asians and Indians treated during times of racial segregation?". Reddit. Reddit. 
  20. ^ Desai, Manan. "The 'Tan Stranger' from Ceylon". South Asian American Digital Archive. SAADA. Retrieved 17 March 2016. 
  21. ^ Postmodernism & a Sociology...(c). University of Arkansas Press. pp. 143–. ISBN 978-1-61075-322-7. 
  22. ^ United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate From The Circuit Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit., No. 202. Argued 11, 12 January 1923.—Decided 19 February 1923, United States Reports, v. 261, The Supreme Court, October Term, 1922, 204–215.
  23. ^ a b "Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians". History Matters. Retrieved 20 August 2013. 
  24. ^ Loving Day: Celebrate the Legalization of Interracial Couples
  25. ^ Coulson, Doug (2015). "British Imperialism, the Indian Independence Movement, and the Racial Eligibility Provisions of the Naturalization Act: United States v. Thind Revisited". Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives (7): 1–42. SSRN 2610266Freely accessible. 
  26. ^ Shankar, L.D. & Rajini Srikanth, R. (1998). A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. xiv. ISBN 1-56639-577-1.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h Morning, Ann (2001). "The Racial Self-Identification of South Asians in the United States." (PDF). Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 27 (1): pp. 64 & 75 - 77.
  28. ^ "Indian Nikki Haley Says She Is White". Mother Jones. July 29, 2011.
  29. ^ University of Michigan. Census 1990: Ancestry Codes. at the Wayback Machine (archived March 13, 2005)
  30. ^ Menon, Sridevi. Duke University. "Where is West Asia in Asian America? Asia and the Politics of Space in Asian America." 2004. April 26, 2007. [1]