Ethnic Progress

Jun 09, 2009
*Special to asia!
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A brief overview of the South Asian diaspora in the US. The US is a nation born of transplants, but the term “minority” is beginning to seem inadequate for a range of non-natives and their descendents residing here today.

In the 2000 US census, almost 12 million reported being of Asian ancestry, an increase of 72% over the previous 10 years. That’s a rate of growth greater than the country’s as a whole.

Interestingly enough, race data collected during the first census did not distinguish between Asian races at all; it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Chinese and Japanese people could check their own ethnic box on the census form, 1910 for other groups such as Filipinos and Koreans. Now “Asian”, that ever-broadening spectrum of ethnicities that will no doubt keep the Census Bureau on its toes details over 20 different groups (and also accounts for individuals who are Asian in combination with one or more races).

The South Asian community alone has doubled since 1990. Americans and US residents who can trace their ancestries to India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are working and living in places like California, New York, Chicago, and parts of the North-east. Some of the first South Asian émigrés arrived as early as 1906 to the West Coast, where approximately 5,000 Punjabi Sikh men worked as migrant laborers, many eventually leasing land and starting their own farms in California’s Imperial Valley.

It was the Immigration Act of 1965 that made it possible for more South Asians and others to move to the US; the law abolished previous “natural origin quotas” (which had hindered Asian immigration) and allowed entrance on skills-based need, or with sponsorship by a relative who was currently a permanent resident or citizen. This new legislation brought a wave of South Asians seeking educational and professional opportunities (e.g. doctors, engineers, students) as well as a merchant class (e.g. restaurateurs and storeowners).

In the 1990s, the boom spurred an influx of high tech workers to California, this time to Silicon Valley. The rapidly changing IT industry still fuels the ongoing need for technical talent and contributes in part to the expanding business relationship between the US and South Asia.

South Asians have made and continue to make huge contributions to the arts, business, entertainment, journalism, and politics, and include New Jersey Assemblyman Upendra J. Chivukula; writers Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee; supermodel/actress Padma Lakshmi; Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi; filmmakers Mira Nair and M. Night Shyamalan; PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi; actors Kal Penn and Sendhil Ramamurthy; and Newsweek International editor and political commentator Fareed Zakaria. Where once South Asians were not recognised, there are now organizations like the South Asian Journalists Association, South Asian Network, SiliconIndia (magazine and professional network), Indus Women Leaders (ILW), South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT), DesiFlames (download site for South Asian music), and others, all providing support and solidarity in a thriving community.


A freelance writer and editor, Melanie Hilario became a contributor to asia! Magazine in 2006. She loves kung fu and grammar, and will usually partake in karaoke with one drink and very little force.