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This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Indian American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Diverse Origins and Destinations

Indians had come to the United States as early as 1820. But the distance and restrictive immigration quotas meant that by the end of the 19th century, less than 800 Indians are recorded to have emigrated here. No wonder that when four Sikhs were allowed to land in San Francisco on April 6, 1899, it was a newsworthy event. It was unclear what happened to those Sikhs, but soon many other Sikhs followed, also seeking their fortunes.

Small Sikh male worker communities soon sprang up all along the West Coast. From the early 1900s until 1922, there were up to 100 Hindus working at a timber mill near Portland, Oregon, with their neighborhood nicknamed "Hindu Alley." In San Francisco, a Hindu temple was dedicated in 1908. In the Central Valley city of Stockton, California, the first organized society of Sikhs was formed in 1911, with a temple built the following year. And in 1912, six Indians enrolled as students at UC Berkeley.

Indian worker in front of the Taj Mahal © Adrian Pope and Getty Images

Relations were not always so harmonious, as Indians were seen as a threat for jobs by local workers. In 1907, in the city of Bellingham, Washington, a mob of about 500 men attacked boarding houses and mills, forcing about 300 Indians to flee. And restrictive laws, such as the 1913 Alien Land Law in California aimed at preventing Chinese and Japanese from owning and farming land, also affected Indian immigrants.

No significant immigration took place until the 1965 Immigration Act. Only 7,629 immigrants from South Asia are said to have arrived in the United States by 1965. The 2000 Census counted nearly 1.7 million non-mixed Asian Indians, a 100 percent increase over 1990, and an increase of almost five times over the 1980 population.

A significant proportion of the Indian American population are ethnic Indo-Caribbeans. Indians were brought by the British to the Caribbean beginning in the early 1800s as indentured workers. The majority went to three countries -- Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname -- but others went to Jamaica, St. Lucia, and other countries up until the early 20th century. Even today, Indians comprise about half of the population of Guyana, while in Trinidad and Tobago, Indians comprise about forty percent of the population. The Census does not track lndo-Caribbeans separately; they may identify themselves as Asian Indian or Pakistani, or choose the Caribbean country of origin.

Demographic Characteristics

An East-West Center study of Asian Indians in the United States based on 1980 Census data concluded that Asian Indians are extremely well-assimilated economically, but very diversified in other areas such as cultural, religious, and other dimensions. According to the recent Census data, Indians had the highest median household income, family income, per capita income, and annual median income of any foreign-born group.

Sikh Indian American © Andy Reynolds and Getty Images

The Asian Indian American population is dominated by young working-age people. Nearly four in ten are between the ages of 20 and 40. The true figure may have been even higher; some temporary immigrant workers (such as H1-B visa holders) and their families might not have completed the 2000 Census forms due to confusion over whether they should complete the Census forms (they were supposed to). The Asian Indian community is not only very young compared to the white population, it is aging slowly. The median age changed from 28.9 years in 1990 to 30 years old in 2000.

Slightly more than one-quarter of the Asian Indians in the United States were born in the United States. 51.3 percent were born in India; another ten-plus percent were born in other countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Guyana, where a sizable Indian population lives. That leaves about 15 percent born in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean, evidence of the wide scope of the Indian diaspora.

Asian Indians are highly concentrated in the Northeastern part of the United States. About 35 percent live there, with more than 400,000 Asian Indians calling the New York City metropolitan area home. Southern and Western regions of the United States serve as homes to more than half of Asian Indians. The San Francisco Bay Area has the highest percentage of Asian Indians.

Success and Mobility, But With Some Exceptions

The educational attainment of Asian Indians far exceeds those of local populations for any given marital status or age group. It is important to note that most Asian Indians allowed to emigrate to the United States have completed their bachelor's or master's degree. This selectivity is an important factor that contributes to higher levels of education among Asian Indian Americans. The 2000 Census data shows that about 54 percent of Asian Indians held a professional or college education. Among Asian Indians 20 years or older, only 25 percent have high school diplomas or lower, with the remaining 75 percent population having some college or professional degree.

A bright future ahead © Asia Images Group and Getty Images

The average salary earned by an individual Asian Indian worker in 2000 was $29,745. The difference is wide between the sexes: males' average annual salary was $40,551, compared to $16,078 for females. These gender differences closely follow the educational differences noted earlier and the type of employment sought by Asian Indian males and females.

There are ongoing debates on whether Asian Indians should be included in affirmative action policies, and whether businesses owned by Asian Indians should qualify for minority status. For instance, some Chinese Americans in San Francisco protested against including Asian Indians among beneficiaries of a citywide affirmative action program aimed at under-represented Asian Pacific Americans.

The demographics of Asian Indians in 2000 were very favorable for them to advance socioeconomically as a group. The percentage of young, working people is very high relative to the number of elderly and children. Provided with equal opportunity, this youthful community looks set to achieve high levels of education, climb the occupational ranks, and increase their incomes and wealth. While Asian Indians do boast the highest median household income for any ethnic group in the country, the mainstream media often ignores the possibility that their incomes may lower than whites with similar educations and degrees.

Furthermore, the 2000 Census showed that many Asian Indian households had relatives living with them -- meaning that the larger average household size is a big reason for the larger household incomes. Finally, the concentration of Asian Indians predominantly in East and West Coast cities, means that the higher cost of living there also offsets any gains in household incomes. The bottom line is that it is very likely that when one controls for educational achievement and experience, Asian Indians may still be earning significantly lower wages than majority population with similar characteristics.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by K.V. Rao, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Rao, K.V. 2003. "Indian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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