Indian Americans: America's Shithole Success Story

Countries of origin are no measure of the quality of immigrants.


I came to America 32 years ago with my former husband from India, a country that would surely qualify as what this president

Indian Americans
AdamCohn on / CC BY-NC-ND

called a "shithole": It is poor, underdeveloped, polluted, and a place where—as one reader helpfully pointed out—people literally shit on the streets. Between my ex and me, we had two suitcases, $1,200 (the maximum foreign currency India allowed a couple to take out from the country), zero connections, and a ton of youthful obtuseness. Thanks to the last item, we saw only the possibilities of America and none of the challenges of making it in a new country where we had no family and few friends. Over the years, without ever collecting a dime in welfare, we managed to put ourselves through graduate school and our son, who is now working on his Ph.D. in economics, through one of the finest private schools in the country.

We are damn proud of what we've achieved. But the truth is that among Indian Americans, our story is so commonplace that talking about it would be sure-fire way to kill a good Bollywood bhangra party. Indeed, by most objective metrics Indian Americans are the most successful group in America.

It would not be unfair to call public (government) schools in India hellholes in a "shithole." Yet children of Indians in America kick ass when it comes to spelling bees. They won 10 of these contests in a row from 1998 to 2008—and in 2005, the top four contestants were all of Indian origin.

And it's not just mindless rote learning that Indians excel at, although that is a particular forte. About 70 percent of Indian Americans over 25 years old have college degrees—2.5 times more than the general U.S. population and 40.6 percent of them have graduate or professional degrees.

They are just one percent of the American population, but 3 percent of its engineers, 7 percent of its IT force, and 8 percent of its physicians and surgeons. Some 10-20 percent of all tech start-ups have Indian founders. Indeed, a joint Duke University-UC Berkeley study revealed that between 1995-2005, Indian immigrants founded more engineering and technology companies than immigrants from non-shithole countries like UK, China, Taiwan and Japan combined. They have risen to the top ranks in major companies like Satya Nadella in Microsoft, Sundar Pichai in Google and Indra Nooyi in Pepsico.

All of this—not to mention the Patel motel "cartel"—has made them the richest ethnicity (not just minority) in America. Their median income, as per the last census, is over $100,000—almost double that of the rest of the population. Their poverty rate is a good four points below the overall rate. And five of them are among Forbes top 400 richest people in America. This is even more remarkable because Indian Americans don't have ancestors going back generations and hence little social support. In fact, over 87 percent of Indian American adults in America weren't born here and 37.6 percent of them have been here about 10 years.

Indian Americans are living proof that hailing from "shithole" countries is no barrier to success in America (and, conversely, hailing from lovelier places is no guarantee of avoiding failure). Immigrants who choose to come to America don't in any meaningful way resemble the stereotypes of their native lands. Indeed, countries become "shitholes" because they are led by assholes. But these presiding assholes are no measure of the "quality" of the people they are governing.

And that too is good news for America.