More than half of Indian Americans feel they have been discriminated against, primarily because of skin color or religion, but also because of caste, often by other Indian Americans, reported the Indian American Attitudes Survey, released June 9.
The wide-reaching survey — conducted online last September by YouGov, the standard bearer for such undertakings — included responses from 1,200 Indian American adults over the age of 18 who were presented with 157 questions. The report’s authors are Sumitra Badrinathan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania; Devesh Kapur, director of Asia Programs and Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies; Jonathan Kay, James C. Gaither junior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In an interview shortly after the release of the report, titled 'Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey', Vaishnav told India-West: “About a year ago, when my colleagues and I got together to talk about doing a survey of the Indian American community, our motivation as Indian Americans who come from very different backgrounds and different immigration histories was to try to understand what is motivating this community.”
“How do they think about politics? How do they think about society? How do they think about developments in India? said Vaishnav. “This community is growing very rapidly. We see their political economic cultural influence growing but yet it's dramatically understudied. So we hope that this is the start of a conversation.”
Approximately 31 percent of respondents said that racial discrimination is a major problem for the Indian American community, 53 percent believed it is a minor problem, and 17 percent said it is not a problem at all.
The vast majority of those who said they had experienced discrimination — 30 percent — believed it was because of their skin color, or religion — 18 percent. About five percent reported being discriminated against because of their caste.
At a press conference introducing the report, Sonal Shah, founder of The Asian American Foundation, noted that 25 percent of those who felt discriminated against said that the perpetrators were fellow Indian Americans.
In one widely-reported instance of caste-based discrimination, last July, a Dalit employee at Cisco, based in Santa Clara County, complained to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing that he was being discriminated against at his workplace by two Indian American supervisors. DFEH filed a case against Cisco and the two supervisors last July in the U.S. District Court for Northern California.
The Dalit employee, who is not named in the lawsuit, alleged that he received lower wages and fewer opportunities because of his caste. The defendants told him he had only gotten into a prestigious IIT university because of India’s affirmative action policies. When he tried to speak out, the supervisors allegedly retaliated against him. (See India-West story here: https://bit.ly/3ix8Dlv)
Vaishnav told India-West: “On the one hand you could say, of the forms of discrimination that Indian Americans might experience, caste discrimination is the least common. But still, if five percent of Indian Americans who are discriminated against believe it's on the basis of their caste, that strikes me as a pretty big social problem that the community has to address.”
“Many of these issues have been swept under the rug for many years,” Vaishnav added, recalling that, as he was growing up in Texas, he would ask questions about caste, as he learned about the word.
“People of my parents’ generation would say, ‘oh, that's something which is happened in India, a long time ago, but it's not something that's relevant today, and it's certainly not something that's relevant in the United States.’ So there is the larger structural challenge of trying to ingrain in people's heads that caste is for many Indian Americans part of their lived experience,” he said.
More than 50 percent of Hindu Americans who responded to the survey identify with a caste: 8 out of 10 said they were from upper castes. At a Santa Clara County, California, Human Rights Commission hearing on caste discrimination, several speakers who worked in the Silicon Valley said they felt left out of the “old boys network” of higher-caste Indians from the IITs.
The politics of the homeland continue to be a focus of Indian Americans. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains wildly popular among both Democrats and Republicans, but younger Indian Americans seem to be concerned about his record of civil rights.
Vaishnav recalled the “Howdy Modi” rally of 2019, which attracted more than 50,000 people to Houston, Texas. He noted that his parents’ generation were anxious to get into the rally to hear Modi speak, even as their children stood outside protesting the event.
“Younger Indian Americans who were born and raised in the U.S. are much more worried and much more anxious about India's current trajectory. This shows up in terms of their disquiet about Hindu nationalism, and some of the Modi government's most controversial policies,” said Vaishnav.
Identity was another key focus of the survey: only four out of 10 respondents said they identified as Indian Americans. Twenty-five percent chose Indians, 10 percent chose South Asian Americans, 7 percent chose Asian Indian, while 6 percent chose American alone.
Other key findings of the report — which can be read in its entirety here: https://bit.ly/3zh19sQ
* Indian Americans exhibit very high rates of marriage within their community, largely tending to marry other Indians.
* Religion plays a central role in the lives of Indian Americans: 40 percent of respondents pray at least once a day and 27 percent attend religious services at least once a week.
* Civic and political engagement varies considerably by one’s citizenship status. U.S.-born citizens report the highest levels of engagement, followed by foreign-born U.S. citizens, with non-citizens trailing behind.
* Indian Americans’ social circles are heavily populated by other people of Indian origin. The social networks of Indian Americans are more homogenous in terms of religion than either Indian region (state) of origin or caste.
* Democrats are much less comfortable having close friends who are Republicans; conversely, Republicans are more comfortable having friends who are Democrats.