A region of South Asia is pictured on a map. (HS Insider)


The place of South Asians in American history

South Asians have a long history in America that is often excluded from conversations about the nation's past.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/sithumadigapola/" target="_self">Pramuditha Madigapola</a>

Pramuditha Madigapola

February 1, 2023
Growing up in America, textbooks never included the role of Asians in American history. The contributions of South Asian culture have become so intertwined with America that they go unacknowledged with examples like ayurvedic practices, including cleanses, medicine, hair oiling, meditation and yoga. Without knowing how South Asians passed these cultural components onto American soil, we lose the ability to credit where they originally came from. As a South Asian, I was left with many questions about how I am where I am today despite not knowing the people in my past who paved the way for future South Asian Americans.

South Asians have been in America since the 1700s, with the earliest settlers being from Punjab and Bengal, according to the South Asian American Digital Archive. The trajectory of South Asian immigration changed in 1923 with the case of The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. After getting his petition of naturalization passed under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which granted naturalization to white people and those of African descent, the government canceled his plea because he was part of an Indian Independence Movement. Because of this, Bhagat registered himself as a white person on account of his being a descendant of Proto-Indo-Europeans. This plea was rejected because Bhagat didn’t match the standard definition of a white person. The Supreme Court concluded that nobody of Indian descent could be a naturalized American and revoked the naturalization of South Asian citizens already in America (African American Registry).

From there, all Asians were denied naturalization due to the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, which lasted two decades, according to the NASW Press. These discriminatory laws ended when President Truman signed the 1946 Luce-Celler Act, which provided naturalization rights to South Asians and Filipinos, allowing 100 immigrants a year into the country. However, a significant shift was made in 1965 with President Lyndon Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act, opening doors to immigrants worldwide. 1965 became a new beginning for Asian immigrants, with immigrants coming in a span of three waves.

First came the upper and merchant class, who set the foundation for future South Asian Americans through the building of significant cultural and religious organizations. These immigrants consisted of physicians, engineers, and lawyers who came to the US for school. They gained success once settled and therefore furthered the myth of model minorities for South Asians. The second wave was in the 1980s when the families of the first wave of immigrants started coming in along with blue-collar workers. The government added the diversity visa to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 to increase the diversity of immigrants. At this time, the US began offering 50,000 tickets every year through a lottery system which increased immigration from countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to the United States (NASW Press). The third wave, spanning from the 2000s and onward, consisted of immigrants who work in IT professionally and students.

Because South Asians came after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they didn’t face the Jim Crow era racial injustice. They could take advantage of free universities and well-paid jobs that the United States provided, ultimately leading to housing in the suburbs and better schooling for children (NASW Press).

South Asians did have a good start in America, but this doesn’t downplay the racial injustice faced in the past and present. We should never forget the contributions of Asian Americans and the history of how we got to where we are today.

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