ON A SEPTEMBER NIGHT IN 1907, an angry mob of about six hundred white people attacked and destroyed an Asian Indian settlement in Bellingham, in the north-western US state of Washington. Many of the traumatised residents fled to Canada. A San Francisco-based organisation called the Asiatic Exclusion League, dedicated to “the preservation of the Caucasian race upon American soil,” blamed the victims for the riot, adding that the “filthy and immodest habits” of Indians invited such attacks. Despite the small number of Indians in the United States—there were fewer than 4,000 at the time—the Asiatic Exclusion League had been warning of a “Hindu invasion” of the country’s west coast. Two months later, another angry white mob struck a settlement of Indian workers in Everett, Washington, forcibly driving them out of the town. In 1910, the US Immigration Commission on the Pacific Coast deemed Indians “the most undesirable of all Asiatics” and called for their exclusion.
Many anti-immigrant laws had already been enacted against other Asian communities, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1907, a new law in the western US state of Oregon barred all Indians from becoming permanent residents (the state had long excluded black people). In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law, mainly targeted at Japanese immigrants, after which California’s attorney general also barred Indians from owning property in the state. In 1914, at a congressional hearing on “Hindu immigration” led by a vitriolic representative from the seventh congressional district of California, Indians were variously called “a menace,” “thick-headed and obtuse,” illiterate, carriers of strange diseases, people who worked “too hard for too little,” and, according to a purportedly “scientific” document, “likely to deplete the vitality of our people, as the Negro had done.”
Now fast-forward a century. In an expression of poetic justice, California’s voters elected Kamala Harris, an Indian American, as the state’s attorney general in 2010. Two years later, the same seventh congressional district of California elected Ami Bera, another Indian American, as its congressman. Today, there are over three million Indian Americans, making up 1 percent of the US population. They are by far the richest and most educated ethnic group in one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. They are disproportionately employed in high-status, high-skill professions. Their median household income is nearly twice as high as that of white households in the US, and they attain graduate and professional degrees at nearly four times higher rates than whites. They furnish over 10 percent of the labour force in computer-related and many other technical fields. Indian Americans have served as CEOs of some of the most iconic US corporations, including Microsoft, Google, Adobe, PepsiCo, Mastercard, McKinsey and Citibank. They are also increasingly becoming visible in spaces that have long been inhospitable to them, such as politics, arts and media. Add to this their low rates of poverty, incarceration, divorce and reliance on public welfare, and one can see why Indian Americans are sometimes called a “model minority” in the United States.
What explains this dramatic reversal of fortune for Indian Americans? Who are the Indians who went to the United States, and what new identities did they forge there? What impact have they had on politics and economics back home?