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Making a Mark

The book presents a nuanced and data-rich analysis of the remarkable success of Indian Americans. 

Indian Americans, defined as including both those who immigrated to and those of Indian origin born in the United States, have done extraordinarily well. Now constituting about one percent of the U.S. population, the reasons for the group’s remarkable success have been analyzed in an insightful, well-written and data-rich book that destroys stereotypes, offers a nuanced view of Indian Americans today and comments on how India itself has been influenced by their many achievements abroad.

The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh, references a popular term for the wealthiest sliver of Americans—the one percent of families that, according to a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, made more than 25 times as much as those in the bottom 99 percent in 2013.

Indian Americans aren’t part of that one percent, at least not as a whole. But they are “arguably the richest and most economically successful group in one of the richest and unarguably the most powerful nation in the world,” the authors note.

“What used to be the standard view of Indians—they are the shopkeepers and motel owners—has really changed in terms of the steadily increasing numbers of Indian Americans with higher [education] degrees and higher incomes, and in terms of where they come from in India,” says Chakravorty. He is a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University in Pennsylvania and visiting scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

The authors identify three main waves of Indian immigrants—“The Early Movers,” a small but highly educated cohort that arrived between the mid-1960’s and the late 1970’s following the loosening of U.S. immigration laws in 1965; “The Families,” or those who joined their early-mover relatives between the beginning of the 1980’s and the mid-1990’s; and “The IT Generation,” by far the largest and best-educated wave. This last group arrived from about 1991, spurred especially by the demand for information technology (IT) professionals in the face of the Y2K computer bug threat beginning in the year 2000. By 2014, the authors note, India “was the largest source of new immigrants to the United States.” 

The IT Generation, perhaps epitomized by the chief executive officer of Google Inc., Madurai-born Sundar Pichai, and the chief executive officer of Microsoft, Hyderabad-born Satya Nadella, skewed the overall profile of Indian Americans sharply higher in terms of education and income.

How did Indian Americans leap ahead of other ethnic groups? The book cites three primary causes: selection, assimilation and entrepreneurship. Of these, selection was paramount. Those who immigrated came from a small pool created by a social system in India that “selected” individuals who “were urban, educated and from high/dominant castes,” and more likely “to receive higher education in technical fields,” the authors assert. 

“Selection is really important,” says Chakravorty. “The barriers to legal entry into the U.S. are exceptionally high, and perhaps 90 percent of Indians can’t surmount them.”

Indian immigrants who arrived in the United States after 1991 assimilated rapidly, aided by their higher education and income levels, and a facility with English, the authors note. They also started businesses. Because many were technology-proficient and had arrived at a time when Internet-related companies were booming, Indian Americans became a major force in Silicon Valley and other digital enclaves. In fact, the authors identify seven “ethno-techno burbs” (suburbs) around the United States where Indian Americans are concentrated because of nearby tech companies.

Although The IT Generation lifted the overall income and education levels, the authors note that many Indian Americans still subsist at the other end of the spectrum, with low levels of education, English proficiency and assimilation. This subset tends to be those “who came into the U.S. in the 1970’s and 1980’s through family reunification,” says Chakravorty.

The remarkable success of Indian Americans, a “model minority,” has also had multiple positive effects in their country of origin, the authors note. These include increased trade and investment between India and the United States, higher levels of financial remittances and portfolio flows, and a greater awareness of the benefits of America’s free enterprise system.

“There’s a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—‘Look how well our people are doing in America,’ ” says Chakravorty. “And although it already was visible in India, America has become more so because of migrants sending back good words about the U.S., and this is a good thing.”

What lies ahead for Indian Americans? For one, a real possibility of becoming the “other two percent” of the U.S. population. The projection is based partially on immigration trends, but relies more on the fact that many Indian Americans are of prime child-bearing age, with fertility rates higher than those of other immigrant groups like Mexicans and Chinese.    

Although immigration policies are a subject of intense debate in the United States, Chakravorty has a message for those in India, and elsewhere, contemplating their futures: “America is still the land of great opportunity.”


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.