Popular Culture

Historicizing Racial Identity and Minority Status for South Asian Americans

Susan Koshy

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

From the time of their arrival in the United States, South Asian Americans have confounded the attempts of official bodies to determine their racial classification. The task of classifying South Asians fell to Census authorities, federal agencies, and the courts, who acting independently and, occasionally in alignment, assigned them to changing categories over time. Hence, in a series of naturalization cases, the courts held that South Asians were white in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but were nonwhite in 1909, 1917, and after the Supreme Court ruling in 1923.[1] In the landmark 1923 United States v. Thind case, the Supreme Court resolved the uncertainty around South Asian racial identity by declaring that South Asians were not white because they did not conform to the "common understanding" of whiteness.[2] But while the courts initially vacillated on the question, census authorities consistently classified South Asians as non-whites for more than half a century. However, in the 1970 census, in a marked departure from past practice, federal agencies counted South Asians as whites. In response to this move, Indian immigrant organizations protested their incorporation into whiteness and sought re-classification as minorities. Following extensive deliberations with Indian and Asian American community groups, federal agencies reversed course. In the 1980 Census, the Census Bureau adopted the category "Asian Indian" and placed it as a subcategory of the umbrella term Asian American. The Asian Indian classification has remained in place till the present.

Thus, South Asian racial identity has elicited annotation, qualification, casuistry and reversal in being accommodated within the U.S. racial order. The late appearance of South Asians on the U.S. racial landscape compounded the problem: the categories black, Indian, and white were already occupied and, more importantly, whiteness was invested with privileges and rights that were being strenuously restricted.

The perplexities generated by official attempts to classify South Asians has historical and contemporary relevance. First, their shifting classification exposes the incoherence of racial categories and the ad hoc nature of their construction over time. The contradictory decisions about South Asian racial identity lay bare the contrast between the enormous power with which the law invested racial identities and the lack of any rational foundation for its classification schemas. Second, the civil rights era contestation between federal agencies and Asian Indian community organizations over whether South Asians should be defined as minorities prefigures and illuminates current debates about how class status impacts racial identity in defining the appropriate subject of civil rights entitlements.

By revealing that racial identity and minority status are historically contingent, South Asian racial reconstructions alert us to the importance of continuously reconceptualizing minority identities to address changing political realities. The history of the conflicts over South Asian racial classification reveal the critical importance of constructing models of corrective and distributive justice that are attuned to the divergent histories and identities of different racial groups and to the changing forms of racism. Thus, although the racial classification of South Asian Americans has been typically treated as an arcane footnote in South Asian American history, a careful analysis of this history has far-reaching implications for our understanding of race, redress, and social justice in the historical and contemporary context.

Asians, Whiteness and the Early Naturalization Cases

In reconstructing the history of Asian American struggles for naturalization, it is crucial to situate the bid for citizenship within the racialized framework of naturalization laws. Absent such a context, we run the danger of producing voluntarist accounts of South Asian attempts to secure citizenship.

A 1790 Congressional statute restricted naturalization to an alien who was "a free white person."[3] After the Civil War, in 1870, following Congressional debate in which efforts were made to drop the racial prerequisite altogether, but were forestalled by the widespread opposition to extending naturalization to native Americans and Asians, naturalization was extended only to "persons of African nativity, or African descent."[4] Subsequent passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 rendered the Chinese ineligible for naturalization. For all other groups, the claim to citizenship would have to be made in terms of their ability to meet the racial prerequisites to naturalization.

Between 1878-1952, 52 prerequisite cases reached state and federal courts, including the two, Ozawa and Thind, that were argued before the Supreme Court.[5] However, in all but one of these cases the litigant sought naturalization by trying to prove that he[6] was white.[7] The petitioners for citizenship were of many different nationalities including Syrian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese. The fact that so diverse a group of petitioners laid claim to whiteness at this historical juncture indicates that whiteness had been defined primarily in opposition to black and native American identities and still lacked geographical specificity or clarity.

Despite differences in nationality and class status among the petitioners, almost all of them sought citizenship as whites when, given the terms of the law, the litigants could have applied for citizenship as blacks. Preempting the "obvious" but tautological response that it was because there were few "Black" immigrants at this time, legal scholar Ian Haney López inserts the crucial reminder that the various citizenship claimants did not fit neatly into either the white or black category within the classification schema of that time. He adds, "some immigrant groups, for example the Chinese, were initially characterized as Black, suggesting that for some, attempting to naturalize as a 'white person' was the more difficult route."[8] In explaining the preponderance of white person cases, he refers to the geographical indeterminacy of the legal category of white person as compared to the clarity of the definition of a black person as one "of African nativity, or African descent." He also cites the stigma and discrimination faced by black citizens that rendered this option less attractive to immigrants.[9] López emphasizes the historical perspective these cases throw on the invented nature of racial schema:

The lengthy categorical debates in the prerequisite cases seem ridiculous only because we have fully accepted the categories these cases established. Decisions about racial identity are complex; they appear obvious only in retrospect, and then only from a vantage point built upon the assumption that races are fixed transhistorical categories. The extent to which the definitional struggles in these cases seem quaint measures on some level the extent to which we have erroneously accepted their simple conclusions. The truly curious, then, is not the typological sophistry of the courts, but our own certainty regarding the obvious validity of the recently fabricated.[10]

While most Asian bids for naturalization were quickly dismissed by establishing that the petitioners were Mongolian and hence not Caucasian, the question of Japanese and South Asian eligibility for naturalization remained open until 1922 and 1923 respectively. Although Japanese were also classified as Mongolians, the reluctance of the United States to jeopardize diplomatic relations with a strong Asian nation kept their status in limbo for a longer period of time. Their ambiguous status was finally settled when the case of Takao Ozawa reached the Supreme Court in 1922. In pleading his case, Ozawa adduced his light skin color, his education, and his assimilated identity to affirm his whiteness and his fitness for citizenship. However, the court denied his petition stating that "the words 'white person' are synonymous with the words 'a person of the Caucasian race'" and since the Japanese were not Caucasian, they were not eligible for citizenship. The Ozawa decision dealt a final blow to Japanese aspirations for citizenship and was widely condemned by the Japanese American community. By equating Caucasian and white identity, the rationale for the Ozawa decision judgment appeared to buttress the South Asian bid for naturalization which made its way to the Supreme Court just two months later in 1923. However, in deciding the Thind case, the court swerved sharply from its justification in the Ozawa decision, ruling that although South Asians were Caucasians according to anthropological theories, popular perception and not science should serve as the final determinant of whiteness.

In making his case, Thind followed the precedent of other successful South Asian petitioners for citizenship by claiming to have science on his side. According to some anthropological theories, South Asians belonged to the white Aryan race, one branch of which had left the original homeland or Urheimat in the Caucasian mountains and wandered into India. While the Indian Aryan represented one branch of the Aryan race, other branches had left the Urheimat later and spread out in different directions to found the various European civilizations.[11] Thind's arguments centered on his anthropologically-endorsed Caucasian identity. But the court rejected his petition noting, "It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today."[12] Forced to articulate a rationale for whiteness yet unable to do so, the Supreme Court took recourse to a tautology: the Thind ruling stated that a "white person" was a person "the average well informed white American" knew was white.[13] Following Thind, denaturalization proceedings were initiated against South Asians and almost 65 lost their citizenship between 1923 and 1927; one among these, Vaisho Das Bagai, committed suicide after his denaturalization.[14]

The Thind decision brought South Asian legal categorization into conformity with the practice of federal agencies like the Census Bureau, which had from the beginning classified South Asians as "Other/Non-white Asiatics."[15] The vexed rearticulations of the meaning of whiteness contained in the naturalization cases reveals the incoherence of whiteness as a racial category and the contradiction between the claims of American democracy and the discriminatory logic codified into naturalization law. These cases also worked incrementally to reformulate whiteness from a black/white binary to a more complex racial schema that created the framework for the racial contestations and transformations that would follow in subsequent decades.         

Census Classifications

Besides the courts, the other major body to undertake the racial classification of South Asians was the Census Bureau. But although the Census Bureau collected data and figures on the various racial groups in the country throughout the course of the twentieth century, its reasons for collecting this information changed significantly over time. After the 1960s, racial data was needed for monitoring civil rights enforcement efforts, documenting the social and educational needs of minority groups, and reducing the differential undercount of racial and ethnic minority groups in the census.

Thus, while ethnic and racial classification was initially used to identify "populations who were excluded from full citizenship," after civil rights laws were enacted racial data was developed to "ensure the inclusion of groups."[16]

The change in the census classification of South Asians took place in the 1970s, when federal agencies began re-evaluating the existing racial categories to establish government-wide standards for ethnic and racial data collection. The need to standardize ethnic and racial categories led the Federal Interagency Committee on Education (FICE), a subdivision of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to establish the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Divisions. The major taxonomical problem that confronted the committee was how to classify South Asians:

The major problem associated with this category [Caucasian/White] as with the "Asian..." category... was how to deal with persons from the Indian subcontinent. The question at issue was whether to include them in the minority category "Asian . . ." because they are from Asia and some are victims of discrimination in this country, or to include them in this category because they are Caucasian, though frequently of darker skin than other Caucasians. The final decision favored the latter. While evidence of discrimination against Asian Indians exists, it appears to be concentrated in specific geographical and occupational areas.[17]

Ironically, in equating whiteness and Caucasian identity, federal agencies resurrected the racial terminology the Supreme Court had mobilized in the Thind decision except, in this instance, they reached the opposite conclusion: South Asians are Caucasian and, therefore, they are white. But although the Supreme Court and federal agencies reached opposite conclusions about South Asian racial identity, the effect of the decision in both cases was to deny South Asians access to specific benefits and rights that were at stake: citizenship in the first case, and minority status in the second.

The decision regarding the racial status of South Asians was a vexed one. The discussions on their eligibility for minority status took place within the concerned federal agencies and without the input of immigrant community groups. As an internal bureaucratic conversation, the discussions reflected dominant perceptions about South Asian racial identity that, it would turn out, clashed sharply with the self-perceptions and political consciousness of many South Asian Americans. The FICE reevaluation of South Asian racial status also occurred during a transitional moment in the history of South Asian immigration to the U.S. The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act removed the severely restrictive quotas on Asian immigration that had been in place for over half a century and established a high preference for skilled workers. As a result, the educational and class profile of the South Asian immigrant community was dramatically transformed by the influx of large numbers of middle class professionals. Hence, although the South Asian community, at that time, was a bi-polar group, consisting of a segment of more numerous and highly educated new immigrants, and another smaller segment of invisible, poor, and uneducated older immigrants, the decision to count South Asians as whites appears to have been based on the economic profile of the new immigrants within the group. The decision to deny South Asians minority status was linked to the perception that middle-class position, immigrant status, and education mitigated the discriminatory effects of race, hence disqualifying South Asians from consideration as the proper subjects of civil rights.

This decision marked a sharp departure from past practices of the Census Bureau which had unwaveringly classified South Asians as non-whites as shown in Table 1.

To recapitulate, Indians were first counted in the U.S. Census in 1910 as "Other" and a detailed footnote in the census clarifies that although "pure-blood Hindus belong ethnically to the Caucasian or white race and in several instances have been officially declared to be white by the United States courts in naturalization proceedings" nevertheless "in view of the fact that the Hindus, whether pure-blood or not, represent a civilization distinctly different from that of Europe, it was thought proper to classify them with non-white Asiatics." In 1920, they were again categorized as "other" and specified as "non-white Asiatics." Subsequently, they showed up in the 1930 and 1940 census as "Hindus" but by this time their numbers had dwindled to 2,405, rendering them statistically irrelevant. The 1940 census indicates that the community was overwhelmingly older, many were illiterate and worked as farm laborers, and the educational level for Asian Indians was the lowest of all racial and ethnic groups reported in that census.[18] Because their numbers had become so small by 1940, in the 1950 and 1960 census[19] "Hindus" were no longer separately counted but included in the residual category "Other races" along with all the other Asian-origin groups not separately listed on the census (Thais, Burmese, Malays etc.).[20] Koreans, whose numbers were similarly low, were also moved in the 1950 census from a separate listing to the catch-all category "Other races." The instructions to enumerators for the 1960 census specifically emphasizes that Asian Indians are to be treated as non-whites:

The instructions for completing P5 (race or color) by observation directed that Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, or other persons of Latin descent would be classified as 'White' unless they were definitely Negro, Indian, or some other race. Southern European and Near Eastern nationalities also were to be considered White. Asian Indians were to be classified as "Other" and "Hindu" written in.[21]

Thus, the decision to count South Asians as "whites" in the 1970 census was clearly anomalous.[22]

Table 1
History of the Classification of Asian Indians by the Census Bureau

Census Year Census Classification
1910 Other/Non-white Asiatic/Hindu
1920 Other/Hindu
1930 Hindu
1940 Hindu
1950 Other/Non-white/Asiatic Indian
1960 Other/Non-white/Hindu
1970 Other/White*
1980 Asian Indian
1990 Asian or Pacific Islander/Asian Indian
2000 Asian Indian

Note: Census classifications are taken from the categories listed on the Census form as responses for the question on race or color; these categories are indicated in boldface type. Census classification into sub-categories is drawn from the instructions to the enumerators and the definitions and explanations of terms published in the Census.

* In the explanation of terminology used for compiling the data on race in the 1970 Census, the following explanation is provided for the "white" category: "The category "white" includes persons who indicated their race as white, as well as persons who did not classify themselves in one of the specific race categories on the questionnaire but entered Mexican, Puerto Rican, or a response suggesting Indo-European stock."[23] The reclassification procedures adopted in the 1970 Census that pertain to Asian Indians are described in detail in Reference Week: "The 1970 questionnaire did not have separate race categories for Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Samoan, and Guamanian. These persons indicated their race in the "Other" category and later, through the editing process, were assigned to a specific group. For example, in 1970, Asian Indians were reclassified as "White," while Vietnamese, Guamanians, and Samoans were included in the "Other" category."[24]

This classification was contested by the Association of Indians in America (AIA), a major community organization that had begun spearheading the bid for minority status. When the AIA approached federal agencies to seek minority status, they were told that a pre-condition for such recognition was having a sizeable population. It was then that AIA leaders approached the Census Bureau for population figures and discovered to their amazement that an accurate count of Asian Indians did not exist because their responses to the "Other" category had been added to the numbers for whites in the 1970 census.[25] The AIA then began extensive negotiations with the Census Bureau through the Asian and Pacific American Advisory Committee to seek a separate identification of Asian Indians in the Census and ensure an accurate count of their population. Interestingly enough, opinions within the South Asian community about the validity of seeking minority status were diverse, ranging from the strongly supportive to the ambivalent to the strongly opposed. AIA played a major role in soliciting input from the community, educating the community about the stakes involved, and serving as a liaison with government agencies. Monisha Dasgupta's account of the AIA's activities reveals that the AIA had taken a leadership role on this issue because of its wider concern with getting Indian immigrants involved in the political processes of their host country in order to undercut the growth of sectarian identities based on religion, region, and language that they saw as an impediment to the integration and unity of South Asians in the U.S.[26] Furthermore, the AIA believed that securing recognition as a minority group would provide access to economic benefits in employment, housing, and education. The AIA also argued that minority status provided the only mechanism for redress against the racial discrimination faced by Asian Indians, which their existing classification as "white" obscured.[27]

One of the major differences between the AIA and federal agencies was in their understanding of the nature and extent of the discrimination experienced by South Asians. While the FICE report postulated that discrimination against Asian Indians was limited and localized, the AIA responded with the following statement:

The Association of Indians in America has found that discrimination against Indians is not concentrated in limited geographic and occupational areas. Examples of discrimination are widespread . . . And while it is commonly believed that the majority of Indians working in this country are well-educated and employed in jobs of a professional nature, their profiles are not at all unlike those of Korean and Japanese immigrants who derive the benefits from the ethnic classifications in the form of preferential hiring . . . vis-a-vis other professionals, Indians are disadvantaged, we believe, for reasons of racial discrimination. As Indians become permanent residents and citizens, they are able to bring family members to this country who might otherwise have difficulty immigrating, i.e., those who are employed in skilled or unskilled occupations for which there is an abundance of qualified U.S. workers. Once here they enter the labor market and must compete with other ethnic groups for the kinds of jobs which affirmative action programs are particularly applicable."[28]

In his appearance before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Manoranjan Datta, offered detailed analysis and data to show that problems of underemployment, limited career advancement, mobility, and labor market differentiation represented a systemic disadvantage for South Asians in the job market. This was the position held by the AIA in its statement to FICE:

The language of the Civil Rights Act clearly intends to protect those individuals who might be disadvantaged on the basis of appearance. It is undeniable that Indians are different in appearance; they are equally dark-skinned as other non-white individuals and are, therefore, subject to the same prejudices. . . Indians are disadvantaged, we believe, for reasons of racial discrimination.[29]

The choice that community organizations faced at this time was between being merged with whites or seeking minority status. Since these two categories (white and minority) were mutually exclusive, the dilemma they confronted was to choose between the available options. One of the major concerns that propelled the drive for minority status was that classification as whites would render them subjects of discrimination without recourse to redress. The AIA argued to FICE that "when an individual files charges of racial discrimination, he must prove that he is a member of a minority group (MC Donnell Corporation vs. Green 411 U.S. 792, 1973)."[30]

South Asian community organizations were eventually successful in making their case and the category "Asian Indian" was adopted for use in the 1980 census. The category represented only a slight modification of the term "Indian" which was initially proposed by the AIA and was modeled after the national origin categories applied to the other Asian American groups like "Japanese," "Chinese," and "Korean." However, at the request of the Native American Advisory Committee, the rubric was changed to "Asian Indian" in order to "end Columbus's confusion."[31]

The changing racial classifications of South Asians in the Census, like the conflicting rulings on their racial identity in the naturalization cases, highlight the incoherence of whiteness as a racial identity and emphasize the exclusionary practices that have defined its meanings. The dilemmas of South Asian racial classification also offer a framework for rethinking the normative subject of civil rights by alerting us to ways in which the meaning of minority status has been transformed by the new immigration and global flows of labor and capital. If South Asians have not fit the traditional model of the minority it is perhaps because the model no longer fits the multiple racial, cultural and gendered identities that characterize the U.S. in the new millenium.


[1] Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 67.

[2] United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923).

[3] 1 Stat. 103 (March 26, 1790).

[4] 16 Stat. 254 (July 14, 1870).

[5] See López, White By Law, for a concise and comprehensive history of these cases. In 1952, legislation was passed removing all racial prerequisites for naturalization. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, § 311, ch. 2, 66 Stat. 239.

[6] The reason that women did not show up as petitioners in the naturalization cases is that their claims to citizenship or naturalization derived from the status of their husbands. This general principle notwithstanding, the Supreme Court ruled in 1868 that only "white" women could gain citizenship by marrying a citizen. Moreover, if a noncitizen woman was married to a man racially ineligible for citizenship, she herself was similarly debarred, whatever her own racial qualifications for naturalization. Similarly, American women were stripped of their citizenship if they married an alien after the Expatriation Act of 1907, or in a partial retraction of this law, if they married an alien ineligible for citizenship after 1922. This provision was only finally repealed in 1931. Lopéz, White by Law, 46-47.

[7] In re Cruz was the only reported case where a plaintiff sought naturalization as a person of African nativity. The petitioner had an African-native American mother and a native American father, but the court rejected the petition stating that a person who was one-quarter African and three-quarters native American was not eligible for citizenship as a person of "African descent." In re Cruz, 23 F. Supp. 774 (E.D.N.Y. 1938).

[8] Lopéz, White by Law, 51.

[9] Ibid, 52.

[10] Ibid, 55.

[11] For a more detailed account of these theories and how they came to be later discredited, see Susan Koshy, "Category Crisis: South Asian Americans and Questions of Race and Ethnicity," Diaspora 7.3 (1998): 285-320.

[12] United States v. Thind, 209.

[13] Ibid., 211.

[14] Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Penguin, 1990), 299-300.

[15] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 11 vols. (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1913) 1: 125-26.

[16] Juanita Tamayo Lott, Asian Americans: From Racial Category to Multiple Identities (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira, 1998), 31.

[17] Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions (Washington D. C.: Federal Interagency on Culture and Education, 1975), 3-4.

[18] Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore, 314.

[19] By the time of the 1960 census, the race question had become discredited and would have been dropped in the 1970 census had it not been for the passage of civil rights and equal opportunities laws that necessitated the compilation of racial statistics. David L. Kaplan, "Politics and the Census," Asian and Pacific Census Forum 6.2 (1979): 4.

[20] In general, the 1950 census saw a move to a shorter list of racial classifications. See Sharon M. Lee, "Racial Classifications in the US Census: 1890-1990," Ethnic and Racial Studies 16.1 (1993): 75-94; and Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History (New Haven, CT, 1988).

[21] Twenty Censuses: Population and Housing Questions 1790-1980 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1979), 70.

[22] This was the first census in which the respondents were asked to self-classify. In arguing for the addition of the Asian Indian category on the 1980 Census, Manoranjan Dutta observed that none of the existing categories were appropriate, and that it was highly possible that category confusion had led some Indians to identify themselves as American Indians or blacks on the 1970 Census because the alternatives of "white" and "other" were either unfamiliar or inappropriate. Manoranjan Dutta, "Statement of Manoranjan Dutta, on Behalf of the Association of Indians in America, Inc.," in U.S. House, Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 1980 Census Hearing, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, June 1-2, 1976, 35.

[23] U. S. Bureau of the Census. Census of Population: 1970 Characteristics of Population, vol. 1, Part 1, Unites States Summary, Sec. 2, Appendix B (Washington D. C.: U. S. Govt. Printing Office, 1973), 15.

[24] Reference Week, 275.

[25] Maxine P. Fisher, The Indians of New York City: A Study of Immigrants from India (New Delhi: Heritage Publishers, 1980), 118.

[26] Monisha Dasgupta, "A Footnote to Whites?: Race, Rights, the Census" (unpublished paper, 2002).

[27] Fisher, Indians of New York City, 129.

[28] Quoted in ibid., 130.

[29] Quoted in ibid., 129.

[30] Quoted in ibid.

[31] Dasgupta, "Footnote to Whites," 24.