Racial classification of Indian Americans

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This page is about the racial classification of Americans with ancestry from India, as viewed by U.S. courts, agencies, institutions, and self-identification. For anthropological racial classifications of Indians in general, see Racial groups of India.
Racial classification of Indian** immigrants by the U.S. judiciary[1][2]
Year Case Judgement Rationale
1909 In re Balsara i.e. not White congressional intent
1910 U.S. v. Dolla White visual inspection of skin
1910 U.S. v. Balsara not White scientific evidence, congressional intent
1913 In re Akhay Kumar Mozumdar not White legal precedent
1917 In re Sadar Bhagwab Singh not White common knowledge, congressional intent
1919 In re Mohan Singh not White scientific evidence, legal precedent
1920 In re Thind not White legal precedence
1923 U.S. v. Thind not White common knowledge, congressional intent
1923 U.S. v. Akhaykumar Mozumdar not White legal precedent
1925 U.S. v. Ali not White*** common knowledge
1928 U.S. v. Gokhale not White legal precedent
1939 Wadia v. U.S. not White common knowledge
1942 Kharaiti Ram Samras v. U.S. not White legal precedent
** Court opinions and decisions on the racial classification of Indians, the last of which was in 1942, were made before formal Indian independence in 1947. While often not clear, it was generally assumed at the time that by Indians the courts meant all those originally from the Indian subcontinent, the union of British India and Princely States.
*** 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.[3] 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. Since 1980, the U.S. census bureau has allowed Indian Americans to self-report their ethnicity, with many selecting "Asian Indian" to differentiate themselves from peoples of "American Indian" or Native American background.

U.S. courts[edit]

Throughout much of the 20th century, U.S. courts classified Indians as both "White" and "non-White". In 1923, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that people of Indian descent were not white men, and thus not eligible to citizenship.[4] 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 at all with physical characteristics" and since "the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences" between Indians and white Americans.[5] 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.[6]

In 1935, Thind relied on hi 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 did not object to his latest petition, and Thind was finally granted American citizenship without objection by the Government nearly two decades after he first petitioned for naturalization.[7] In some instances naïve clerks, or clerks acting in protest[citation needed], also granted citizenship in defiance of the Supreme Court. Enthusiastic anti-Indian sentiments seemed fairly absent in New England[citation needed].

U.S. Census[edit]

Earlier Census forms from 1980 and before listed particular Asian ancestries as separate groups along with White and Black or Negro.[8] Previously, Asian Americans were classified as "other".[9] But the 1980 census marked the first general analyses of Asians as a group, combining several individual ancestry groups into "Asian or Pacific Islander." By the 1990 census, Asian or Pacific Islander (API) was included as an explicit category, although respondents had to select one particular ancestry.[10][11]

The U.S. Census Bureau has changed over the years its own classification of Indians. In 1930 and 1940, Indian Americans were classified as "Hindu" by "Race", and in 1950 and 1960, they were classified as Other Race, and in 1970, they were classified as White. Since 1980, Indians, and all other South Asians, have been classified according to self-reporting.[12]

Professor Madhulika Khandelwal, while serving on the National Board of Asian-American Studies, accredits activism as the catalyst for the 1980s U.S. Census re-classification of Indians.[13] A write-in response of "Indian" in the "Some other race" line of the US Census does not get the respondent classified as a race, since it is unspecified whether the respondent is an Asian Indian or an American Indian.[14] Accordingly, the US Census uses the term "Asian Indian" to make the group in question clear.[14]


On U.S. Census forms, 90% of Indian Americans self-reported as Asian Indian. The US Census includes people who wrote in Bharati, Dravidian, Hindu, Indo-Aryan, Indo-Dravidian,[15] Pacific Asian[15] (see Indo Kiwi and Indo Fijian), or East Indian in the "Some other race" section [16] as "Asian Indians". The remaining self-reported as white, brown, and a small proportion as black.[17]

The U.S. Census classifies responses of "Aryan" as white even though responses of "Indo-Aryan" are counted as Asian.[16] The US Census also classifies write-in responses of "Parsi" under Iranian American although this Persian group has lived in India for over 1200 years.[16]

In 1993, the Arab American Institute proposed that the 2000 US Census make a new Middle Easterner racial category and the AAI wanted Pakistani Americans to be included in it.[18] According to the 2000 US Census, 25% of 2nd generation South Asian Americans marked the white category. (pp. 76)[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lopez, Ian Haney (1996). White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press. 
  2. ^ Francis C. Assisi. "Are Desis White?". 
  3. ^ Vinay Harpalani, DesiCrit: Theorizing the Racial Ambiguity of South Asian Americans, 69 N.Y.U. ANN. SURV. OF AM. L. 77 (2013/14). http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2308892
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians". History Matters. Retrieved 20 August 2013. 
  6. ^ Loving Day: Celebrate the Legalization of Interracial Couples
  7. ^ 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. Retrieved 12 June 2015. 
  8. ^ 1980 Census: Instructions to Respondents, republished by Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota at www.ipums.org Accessed 19 Nov 2006.
  9. ^ Lee, Gordon. Hyphen Magazine. "The Forgotten Revolution." 2003. January 28, 2007.[1]
  10. ^ 1990 Census: Instructions to Respondents, republished by Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota at www.ipums.org Accessed 19 Nov 2006.
  11. ^ Reeves, Terrance Claudett, Bennett. United States Census Bureau. Asian and Pacific Islander Population: March 2002. 2003. September 30, 2006. [2].
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Chandy, Sunu P. What is a Valid South Asian Struggle? Report on Annual SASA Conference. 1996. October 26, 2006. way.net
  14. ^ a b Surveillance Epidemology and End Results. Race and Nationality Descriptions from the 2000 US Census and Bureau of Vital Statistics. 2007. May 21, 2007. [3]
  15. ^ a b University of Virginia. Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. "1990 PUMS Ancestry Codes." 2003. August 30, 2007.[4]
  16. ^ a b c University of Michigan. Census 1990: Ancestry Codes. August 27, 2007
  17. ^ a b Morning, Ann. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. "The Racial Self-Identification of South Asians in the United States." 2001. July 21, 2007. [5]
  18. ^ Menon, Sridevi. Duke University. "Where is West Asia in Asian America?Asia and the Politics of Space in Asian America." 2004. April 26, 2007. [6]