Racial classification of Indian Americans

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The racial classification of Indian Americans has varied over the years and across institutions.[1] 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. For most of America's early history, the government only recognized two racial classifications, "White" or "Colored". Due to racist immigration laws of the time, those deemed "Colored" were often stripped of their American citizenship or denied the ability to become citizens. For these reasons, various South Asians in America took the government to court to try and be considered "White" instead of "Colored", using various rationales.[2]

It wasn't until 1980, amid pressures within the Indian community for recognition, that the census created an "Asian Indian" category. Around 360,000 people identified as such in 1980; in the last census, in 2010, this grew to 2.8 million.[3][4] Since 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau further allowed Indian Americans to self-report their ethnicity,[5] owing to the immense diversity of the Indian subcontinent, which is home to more than 2000 different ethnic groups[6] and all the racial groups known to mankind.[7] Only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity of the nation of India.[8] 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.[7]

Initial perceptions[edit]

Among one of the first recorded Indian in America was a mixed race girl born to an Indian father and an Irish-American mother in 1680 in Maryland. Due to her Indian-American father being classified as "Negro", she was classified as a mulatto and later sold into slavery.[9]

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".[1]

Because of racial discrimination in the United States and the difficulty of Indians living under British rule to travel, only a handful of Indians came to the United States in the late-19th and early-20th century. The most famous early Indians in America was Swami Vivekananda, who toured the country in 1893 while spreading the word about Hinduism and Vedanta philosophy. Vivekananda experienced overt racism, particularly in the South, where he was often confused for an African American. Some blacks also believed Vivekananda was a “distinguished Negro,” and in one case, a black porter congratulated him for representing black people so well. When one of his followers asked why Vivekananda never corrected people who mistook him for an African American, he replied angrily: “Rise at the expense of another? I did not come for that.”[10]

Indians who came to the United States as students or lecturers in the early 1900's found it impossible to avoid the country’s racial conflict. In many cases, Indians were treated the same as blacks, and in the South, were often forced to ride in segregated train cabins and use facilities for “coloreds only.”[10] Still, the perception of Indian Americans as foreigners, sometimes helped provide for better treatment, especially in states where de jure segregation was in place. As opposed to being seen as black, in some states Indians were seen as outside of the traditional American racial spectrum, and consequently freed from the encumbrances that system entailed.[11][12][13]

By the mid-1950s, many of the Indians who had come as students and as activist visitors had left the United States.[10] Those who remained settled in the then vibrant black neighbourhoods of Tremé in New Orleans, Black Bottom in Detroit, West Baltimore, and Harlem in New York. Many started families with Creole, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans.[10][14] Punjabi Sikhs in California found a closer comradery with Mexicans, resulting in a unique mixed-race community in the Yuba City area - the Punjabi Mexican Americans.[15][16]

U.S. courts[edit]

Racial classification of Indian** immigrants by the U.S. judiciary[17][18]
Year Case Judgment Rationale Applicant's Ethnicity
1909 In Bhicaji Balsara White congressional intent Parsi[19]
1910 U.S. v. Dolla White** Ocular inspection of skin Afghan born in India[19]
1910 U.S. v. Bhicaji Balsara White scientific evidence, congressional intent Parsi[19]
1913 In re Akhay Kumar Mozumdar White legal precedent "high-caste" North Indian "Aryan"[20]
1917 In re Sadar Bhagwab Singh Colored common knowledge, congressional intent "Hindu",[21] no reference to caste[19]
1919 In re Mohan Singh White scientific evidence, legal precedent "high caste Hindu" "Aryan"[19][22]
1920 In re Thind White legal precedence "high caste Hindu", born in Punjab[23]
1923 U.S. v. Thind Colored common knowledge, congressional intent "high caste Hindu", born in Punjab[23]
1923 U.S. v. Akhay Kumar Mozumdar Colored legal precedent "high-caste" North Indian "Aryan"[20]
1925 U.S. v. Ali Colored*** common knowledge "Arabian" from the Punjab[24]
1928 U.S. v. Gokhale Colored legal precedent "Aryan Hindu of high caste"[25]
1939 Wadia v. U.S. Colored common knowledge Parsi[26]
1942 Kharaiti Ram Samras v. U.S. Colored legal precedent born in Manko, Punjab, India[27]
** 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.

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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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 colored, Indian Americans were banned by anti-miscegenation laws from marrying white Americans in the states of Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia.[31]

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.[32]

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.[30]

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.[33] During the 1970s, Indian Americans debated if they should give up trying to be "considered 'Caucasian'" to try to "seek or accept minority status".[19] Indian American groups, through their own petitioning, successfully changed their racial classification to Asian in the 1970s to have themselves included in state and federal Asian racial categories to benefit from affirmative action.[2] Specifically, Indian Americans had their official race changed 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.[1] 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.[5]

National Origin and Race[2]
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.[5] Indians display the highest likelihood of selecting the 'Black’ category, while Sri Lankans followed by Pakistanis are most likely to describe themselves as white.[2]

Indian independence movement fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay wrote of the Indian racial identity in America as being Black.[34] After spending years studying and living with African-American families, Chattopadhyay wrote Indians in America should form ties with African-Americans as they shared a common ancestry and a common struggle for independence.[35]

However, South Asians often attempt to be identified as white in order to try to distance themselves from African-Americans and Hispanics.[36] Even though South Asians "insist on being called 'brown', the plea of Indian immigrants not to be called black is what is most audible".[37] This is due to considerable anti-blackness and anti-Hispanic prejudice in some segments of the South Asian population. This prejudice is often accompanied by a fear of being mistaken for Black or Hispanic, described as "an almost paranoid response to even being thought of as black".[38]

The official classification of South Asians as part of the Asian racial category represents an agreement of convenience for South Asians on where they fit on the racially divided black-white spectrum in America.[2] South Asian Americans and other types of Asian Americans mutually feel that there exists "profound racial difference" between themselves and the other Asian ethnic 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."[2]

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.[2] Nikki Haley, the Indian American governor of South Carolina, whose parents are from Punjab in Northwest India, identified as 'white' on her voter registration card in 2001.[39] Haley's behavior reflects a historically common trend among lighter skinned people of color in America, called white passing. Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democrats, stated “Haley has been appearing on television interviews where she calls herself a minority—when it suits her... When she registers to vote she says she is white. She has developed a pattern of saying whatever is beneficial to her at the moment.”[40]

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.[41] 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.[42]

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.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Morning, Ann. "The racial self-identification of South Asians in the United States" (PDF). Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Vol. 27): 1–19. Retrieved 9 January 2019.
  3. ^ Varathan, Preeti; Varathan, Preeti. "For one year, all the South Asians in the US were considered "white"". Quartz India.
  4. ^ Cohn, D'Vera. "Race and the Census: The "Negro" Controversy". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ US Department of State (17 April 2012). "Background Note: India".
  7. ^ a b Bhasin, M.K. Racial, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Elements in Indian Population
  8. ^ India, a Country Study United States Library of Congress, Note on Ethnic groups
  9. ^ Francis C. Assisi (2005). "Indian-American Scholar Susan Koshy Probes Interracial Sex". INDOlink. Retrieved 2009-01-02.
  10. ^ a b c d "Indian Independence And The African American Struggle". Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American. 17 August 2007.
  11. ^ New York Times. "Negro Pastor Traveled in the South in Turban". New York Times. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  12. ^ Clerk, Cecil. "AskHistorians: How were Asians and Indians treated during times of racial segregation?". Reddit. Reddit.
  13. ^ Desai, Manan. "The 'Tan Stranger' from Ceylon". South Asian American Digital Archive. SAADA. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  14. ^ Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America (First Harvard University Press paperbackition ed.). ISBN 9780674503854.
  15. ^ Karen Leonard, PhD (May 1989). "The World & I". The Washington Times Corporation.
  16. ^ Palhotra, Nishi. "The 'dirty Hindus'." Hardnews. March 2008. Retrieved on April 15, 2012.
  17. ^ Lopez, Ian Haney (1996). White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press.
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ a b Howard, D. (2006). A.K. Mozumdar. Yesterday's Evangelist from India. Retrieved on October 31, 2015, from link
  21. ^ The Federal Reporter: with key number annotations. Volume 246. (1918). St. Paul: West Publishing, Co. pp. 500.
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  25. ^ United States v. Gokhale. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  26. ^ Wadia v. United States. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  27. ^ Kharaiti Ram Samras v. United States. (2015). Casetext. Retrieved October 31, 2015, from link.
  28. ^ Postmodernism & a Sociology...(c). University of Arkansas Press. pp. 143–. ISBN 978-1-61075-322-7.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ a b "Not All Caucasians Are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians". History Matters. Retrieved 20 August 2013.
  31. ^ Loving Day: Celebrate the Legalization of Interracial Couples
  32. ^ 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 2610266.
  33. ^ 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.
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  37. ^ Rajagopal, A (1997). "Transnational networks and Hindu nationalism". Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars: 45–58.
  38. ^ Mazumdar, Sucheta (1 May 1989). "Racist Responses to Racism: The Aryan Myth and South Asians in the United States". Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. pp. 47–55. doi:10.1215/07323867-9-1-47. Retrieved 9 January 2019.
  39. ^ "Indian Nikki Haley Says She Is White". Mother Jones. July 29, 2011.
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  42. ^ 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]