Violence and prejudice against Asian Americans have increased markedly in recent months. While the United States has a long history of bigotry against immigrants of color going back to the late 19th century, the growing hostility toward people of Asian origin in the wake of the devastating coronavirus pandemic casts a new spotlight on the discrimination many Asian immigrant populations experience in the United States.
Much of the recent media attention has focused — rightly, in our view — on Americans of East Asian descent. But to what extent are immigrants of South Asian heritage also victims of bias and discrimination? To shed light on this question, we carried out an original survey of Indian Americans, who make up the second-largest immigrant community in the United States.
The results reveal widespread perceptions of discrimination against Indian Americans on multiple grounds.
Prejudice against Indian Americans has a long history
While Indian Americans have by and large not borne the brunt of recent attacks directed at Asian Americans, the community is no stranger to prejudice.
In the mid-1980s, Indian and other South Asian immigrants were subjected to abuse and violent attacks in the New York-New Jersey region by such groups as the “Dotbusters.” These attacks culminated in the brutal 1987 murder of a Citibank executive. The apathy demonstrated by public authorities in prosecuting and preventing such crimes led to the emergence of activist groups dedicated to fostering greater awareness of civil rights within the community.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, several Indian Americans were victims of violent hate crimes and xenophobic rhetoric, with the Sikh community targeted in particular. But just how much discrimination do Indian Americans face today?
The survey shows Indian Americans feel the effects of discrimination
To explore the social realities of Indian Americans, we fielded an original survey of 1,200 Indian American adult residents, the Indian American Attitudes Survey. The survey was conducted using YouGov’s online panel from Sept. 1-20, 2020, weighting the results to capture a nationally representative view of the Indian American population.
We find that 31 percent of Indian Americans believe that discrimination against people of Indian origin is a major problem in the United States — while 53 percent think it’s a minor problem. Measuring respondents’ lived experiences with discrimination reveals that 1 in 2 Indian Americans reports being subjected to some form of discrimination over the previous 12 months.
But these headline findings mask marked religious differences in the data. Among Muslim respondents in this survey, nearly 65 percent reported discrimination. Furthermore, while we observed no significant differences by gender overall, nearly 70 percent of Indian American Muslim women report experiences with discrimination. This finding reveals that the intersecting identities of being a woman, Muslim and Indian in America exacerbate experiences with prejudice.
In addition, those who identify as supporters of the Democratic Party report a greater degree of discrimination relative to those who identify as supporters of the Republican Party. This reveals a possible link between Indian Americans’ lived experiences with discrimination and their partisan preferences in the United States. Indeed, Indian American voters lean Democratic — and when a 2020 voter attitudes survey asked about their reasons for this preference, the Republican Party’s intolerance of minorities was the most frequently cited reason.
What kind of discrimination do Indian Americans experience?
Experience with discrimination could stem from different forms of bias. To explore this further, our survey asked respondents about the grounds on which they believe they were discriminated against.
As the figure above shows, discrimination based on skin color is the most common form of prejudice, with nearly 3 in 5 respondents saying they suffered discrimination in the past 12 months on the basis of their skin color. This is a compelling reminder of how race has been the singular marker of social difference in American society, echoing similar findings elsewhere.
In this survey, discrimination on the basis of one’s skin color is followed by discrimination due to one’s gender, religion or Indian heritage. A small fraction of all respondents report having encountered discrimination because of their caste identity.
If half of all Indian Americans report being targets of discrimination, who is doing the discriminating? When asked about discrimination on the basis of country of origin or skin color, respondents overwhelmingly blame non-Indians. While respondents suggest Indians hold somewhat greater responsibility for engaging in religious or gender discrimination against other Indians, here, too, they point mainly to non-Indians or a combination of Indians and non-Indians as primary sources of discrimination.
Indian Americans enjoy a higher level of professional and financial success relative to many other immigrant communities in the country. But these successes have not inoculated them from the forces of discrimination. One somewhat surprising finding from the survey is that a significantly larger share of U.S.-born Indian Americans state that they have been discriminated against in the past year relative to foreign-born Indian Americans. This holds true across different types of bias — be it skin color, gender, religion or even caste.
One might expect that foreign-born respondents perhaps face greater discrimination because of their accents or how they dress. But one interpretation of our results is that foreign-born immigrants are simply less likely to report instances of discrimination. The higher frequency of reporting discrimination among U.S.-born Indian Americans could stem from a host of reasons, such as a difference in social norms provoking a greater awareness of discriminatory practices, less fear of retaliation — or an increased demand for equality.
At a time when Asian minorities are under attack — and Indian Americans are experiencing wrenching losses at a distance during India’s covid-19 crisis — the community’s increased awareness of discrimination may lead to new forms of advocacy both for those of Indian origin and many others facing similar predicaments.
Sumitra Badrinathan (@KhariBiskut) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Devesh Kapur is Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies and director of Asia Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Jonathan Kay (@_JonathanKay) is a James C. Gaither junior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Milan Vaishnav (@MilanV) is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
They are the authors of a new report, Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey.