Indian American community’s bonds tested over religion, politics: survey

YouGov52 percent Indian Americans believe other minority groups discriminated against more than them.

Portrayed as the poster child of America’s historic opening to new immigrants, the Indian American community today finds itself tested over religious cleavages, generational divides and political polarization, according to a new survey.

More than half a century after the historic 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act brought a new wave of Indian migration to the United States, the Indian American community has come of age, notes the Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS).

“Its rapidly growing size, economic success, and growing political visibility have given it greater salience in American life,” says the survey done by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with the research and analytics firm YouGov.

The study released Wednesday is based on a poll of 1,200 Indian Americans — including citizens, Green Card holders and Non-Resident Indians — in September 2020, in the run up to the November presidential election.

Read: US-India relations don’t animate Indian Americans much: Survey (October 16, 2020)

“In many ways, the community is often portrayed as the poster child of America’s historic opening to new immigrants who—in ways big and small—have transformed the country,” it notes.

However, the paper argues that while there is much that binds the community, there are also nascent signs that these common bonds are being tested as religious cleavages, generational divides, and political polarization invite fragmentation.

“In that sense, the currents coursing their way through the Indian diaspora are perhaps reflective not only of broader developments in American society but also—and perhaps even to a greater extent—the turbulence afflicting India,” the study concludes.

“With India reeling under a devastating resurgence of the coronavirus, members of the Indian American community—both individually and collectively—are mobilizing in response,” the study noted.

“Motivated by their emotional ties to India, as well as their rights and responsibilities as American citizens, Indian Americans have pushed the US government to mount a large-scale humanitarian response,” it said.

“For Indian Americans, the past is not just a distant country,” it says. “On the contrary, India continues to exist in the present as it influences the lives of the diaspora—even as its members chart a new path in their adopted home.”

The study is third in a series on the social, political, and foreign policy attitudes of Indian Americans, who have emerged as the second-largest immigrant group in the US with a population of over four million.

Apart from tensions within the community, the survey also looks at how discrimination against Indian Americans compares to discrimination directed toward other minority communities in the United States.

Asked if they think discrimination against people of Indian origin is a major problem, 31 percent responded that it is a major problem, 53 percent believe it is a minor problem, and a small minority (17 percent) believe it is not a problem at all.

Placing discrimination against Indian Americans in a comparative context, the survey asked respondents whether they believe other minorities experience a greater degree of discrimination relative to Indian Americans.

A narrow majority—52 percent—of respondents believe that people in the United States discriminate more against all of the other minority groups listed than they do against Indian Americans, it found.

Read: Kamala Harris, Trump-Modi bonhomie factors unlikely to sway Indian Americans: Survey (October 14, 2020)

“That means just less than half of all respondents believe that Indian Americans face a greater degree of discrimination than at least one other minority group,” the survey concluded.

Seventy-three percent of respondents believe that Asian Americans who are not of Indian origin face more discrimination than Indian Americans.

Much larger shares believe that other minority groups face greater discrimination than Indian Americans, including Latino Americans (90 percent), LGBTQ Americans (89 percent), African Americans (86 percent), and women (86 percent).

The survey also asked respondents whether, in the last twelve months, they have personally felt discriminated against along several dimensions beyond country of origin: skin color, gender, religion, and caste.

One in two Indian Americans reports being subject to some form of discrimination in the past year, the survey noted with data suggesting that discrimination based on skin color is the most common form of bias

As many as 30 percent of respondents reported feeling discriminated against due to the color of their skin. An equal percentage of respondents—18 percent apiece—reported that they have been discriminated against due to their gender or religion.

Muslims reported the greatest degree of religious discrimination by far (39 percent), followed by Hindus (18 percent), Christians (15 percent), and believers of other faiths (9 percent).

Sixteen percent of Indian Americans reported being discriminated against by virtue of their Indian heritage. And, finally, 5 percent of all respondents reported having encountered discrimination due to their caste identity.

When it comes to discrimination experienced by Indian Americans, a significantly larger share of foreign-born Indian Americans (59 percent) state that they have not been discriminated against on any grounds in the past year, compared to just 36 percent of US-born Indian Americans.

Both US- and foreign-born Indian Americans report significant discrimination based on skin color—35 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

“Interestingly, respondents born in the United States report twice as much discrimination along gender and religious lines than those born outside of the United States,” the survey noted .

Reported discrimination based on country of origin and caste is roughly similar for both groups (around 15–16 and 5–6 percent, respectively).

The heightened levels of discrimination that US-born respondents report compared to immigrants hold true across categories—whether skin color, gender, religion, or even caste.

“Although the latter difference in perceptions of caste discrimination is tiny, it is nonetheless interesting given the lower degree of caste consciousness among US-born Indian Americans,” the study noted.

One might expect that foreign-born respondents might face greater discrimination given that they are more likely to bear obvious markers that tie them to India (such as accents or dress), it said.

However, the results point in the opposite direction, the study said. “There are a host of plausible reasons why US-born Indian Americans might report greater discrimination, including differences in social norms, greater awareness of discriminatory practices, or less fear of retaliation.”

With half of all Indian Americans reporting some form of discrimination, the survey asked whether the perpetrators of discrimination were Indian, non-Indian, or both.

Respondents overwhelmingly blamed non-Indians when it comes to discrimination on the basis of country of origin or skin color.

In both instances, roughly three-quarters of perpetrators were identified as non-Indians. In about one-fifth of instances, both Indians and non-Indians were perceived to be jointly responsible.

Second, while respondents suggest Indians hold somewhat greater responsibility for engaging in discriminatory practices along religion and gender lines, here too they point mainly to non-Indians or a combination of Indians and non-Indians as primary sources of discrimination.

Third, caste discrimination is a surprisingly equal opportunity offense. Responses are divided neatly into thirds when it comes to who is doing the discriminating: Indians, non-Indians, and people of both categories are almost equally to blame.

The study is authored by Sumitra Badrinathan, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, Devesh Kapur, the Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies and director of Asia Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Jonathan Kay, a James C. Gaither junior fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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