The Volokh Conspiracy

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How People from India Almost Became White

The federal government almost classified Asian Indians as white in the 1970s.


In 1975, the federal government convened an interagency committee to "(1) coordinate development of common definitions for racial and ethnic groups; (2) instruct the Federal agencies to collect racial and ethnic enrollment and other educational data on a compatible and nonduplicative basis." Although the report that spurred the existence of the committee had focused on the lack of uniform definitions of Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians, the committee decided that it would make recommendations for racial and ethnic categorizations for the entire American population.

The groups and definitions recommended by the committee form the basis for the groups and definitions we still use today, with one major exception. Here is the committee's recommendation and explanation for the definition of a person in Caucasian/White category:

A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. The major problem associated with this category, as with the "Asian.. –" category (above) 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 come from Asia and some are victims of discrimination in this country, or to include them in this category because they are Caucasians, 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. Such persons can be identified in these areas through the use of a subcategory for their ethnic subgroup.

A Indian-American newspaper described what happened next:

In January 1976 … board members of the Association of Indians in America (AIA) and their legal counsel met with the Federal Interagency Committee's representatives in Washington D.C. with the purpose of effecting a change in the Indian classification from the "White" category into the "Asian or Pacific Islander" category. Dr. Manoranjan Dutta, president of the AIA, said that his organization began its campaign for the reclassification in the wake of numerous complaints by Indians of alleged discrimination. According to Dr. Dutta, Indians were not getting equal opportunity in jobs, for example, and any discrimination which they faced was being covered up under the guise of their "White" classification - a sort of "hidden" discrimination. Only if they were classified in the "correct" category of "Asian" could they seek immediate legal redress in cases of discrimination. Furthermore, the Asian category appeared to be more appropriate due to geographical reasons - India is a part of Asia.

In August 1976, a review of the five categories was indeed made, and the Federal Interagency Committee agreed by consensus to move the Indian immigrants from the "White" category to the "Asian and Pacific Islander" category… Dr. Dutta announced later in November of 1976 the finalization of the classification change to the Indian media, but it tended to be largely ignored by the American press.

Interestingly, "another group of Indians, who disagreed with this change, and who preferred that Indians be classified as 'White' in this context, later approached Hall's office to lobby for a return to the 'status quo,' but the effort was in vain, as the group had no data to back up their cause."

The final rule, promulgated by the Office of Management and Budget, did place Indians in the "Asian" category, where they have remained ever since.

The reason that they were put in the white category to begin with has been lost to history, beyond what the report quoted above said. I suspect that part of the issue was that the category used previously for "Asian" was "Oriental," by which people typically meant those from East Asia. Given that the largest relevant groups in the U.S. by far were Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos, with very few Indians in the U.S. at the time, the committee was likely still used to separating East Asian "Orientals" from others.

In any event, that's how Asian Indians, who had been deemed non-white by the Supreme Court in the days of the Asian Exclusion Act in the 1920s, almost became white in the 1970s.

For what it's worth, it's long been known that the initial committee report placed Indians in the white category and it was then changed to Asian, but I believe I'm the first one to dig up an account of what happened in the interim.

NEXT: Blue Monday turns into Blue Week, and likely Blue June

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14 responses to “How People from India Almost Became White

  1. Government, in exquisite detail uses faux science to identify 'race'.

    Kind of like the democrats used the 1-drop rule...

  2. Under the Aryan theory - the theory that Indo-European peoples have a common race, just as they have a common language - Indians ARE white people, just like Iranians (linguistically same root as Aryan) are.

    It’s the theory that made the Swastika, a Hindu symbol, the emblem of the Nazi party. It was Ghandi’a argument why South Africa should classify asian Indians as white, not colored, something Professor Volokh blogged about recently.

    In acting as if classifying Asian Indians and Persians as white was some sort of wierd inexplicable coincidence, Professor Bernstein is ignoring the most basic aspects of history, things that a professor at a major law school who purports to be conducting scholarship about racial classifications - especially the history of racial classifications - really, really ought to be expected to know.

    1. Yes, I do know a lot about this, so first of all I know that these categories were not intended to be based on biology, genes, or anthropology; indeed, when the OMB announced the final categories, they said so explicitly. So the Aryan blah blah blah thing is entirely irrelevant, they were trying to figure out which groups needed to have statistics kept for them due to discrimination and economic hardship, not creating a taxonomy of humanity based on science or social science.

      Second, the Supreme Court had considered and explicitly rejected the notion in the 1920s and 30s that "Hindoos" (Indians) were white as a matter of law in the U.S. because they are aryan or caucasian. So, in fact, given that the Supreme Court (upholding the executive branch) had decreed Indians to be "Asians" excludable from the U.S. under the Asian Exclusion Act, in fact the most natural category for Indians for discrimination-statistics-gathering purposes was Asian.

      But please tell me more about the things I'm "expected to know."

      1. Hmmmm .... you're expected to know that ReaderY read somebody else's mind and thought it was you because, why not?

      2. Professor Bernstein,

        The report you quoted explicitly artculated the Aryan theory, stating that the reason for classifying Indians as white is that they are racially Caucasian. (“because they are Caucasians, although frequently of darker skin than other Caucasians.) That’s exactly what the Aryan theory says.

        I think that flatly contradicts your claim that the reason was inexplicable. The fact that you may disagree with or not like the reason doesn’t mean there’s no reason.

  3. I have worked with people from India most of my adult life. They come from very different cultures and backgrounds, and some look just like an average white American, and some don't. Except for Yahoos of any race, I have not seen very much discrimination against them.
    White. So who cares?

    1. A few have gotten very rich from state and federal contracts they were eligible for as members of a designated minority group. Other than that...

  4. Of course, this is only of concern to racists - - - - - - - -

    1. Well, and the government, but that just confirms it.

  5. Bernstein writes: "I suspect that part of the issue was that the category used previously for 'Asian' was 'Oriental,' by which people typically meant those from East Asia."

    Interestingly, on Orwell's 1984 map of the world more than half of the Indian subcontinent is included in the Mongolian quasi-cultural and racial political entity of "East Asia." The southern region of India, that was and likely still is more populated by darker-skinned peoples, is designated as belonging to the "Disputed" territories, along with the Arabian Peninsula, the northern half of Africa, and the islands between Asia and Australia.

    The colonial British Raj endeavored to categorize the Indian peoples by racial markers and as they related to the caste system, but today the Indian Government Census doesn't recognize racial groups (according to Wiki), which seems to imply, although it's not clear from a really quick search, that this non-designation of race would also apply to India's non-native immigrants, both from the past and today.

    1. Thanks.

      I note in it the sentence - also referenced elsewhere in this posting and thread - that:
      "While evidence of discrimination against Asian Indians exists, it
      appears to be concentrated in specific geographical and
      occupational areas."
      This does seem to corroborate my below earlier comment that my experience was perhaps anomalous, w/ discrimination possible in areas where there was less of a concentration of Indians than in the Detroit, Michigan area.

  6. Probably a very minor quibble.

    I remain uncertain about the comment that there were "very few Indians in the U.S. at the time". It seems to be referring to the committee deliberations in the mid-70's rather than the treatment in the 20's. While my experience may be atypical, practicing in Detroit beginning in 1970 and having a good friend there in the academic community at the time, there were a lot of Indians there then.

    At least in the 60's and 70's most of the top students in India gravitated toward Engineering. (While perhaps not too far behind, Medicine was less-favored, w/ Law being well down the line.) Since a major sector for engineering was the Automobile Industry, many of them immigrated to the Detroit area, for graduate studies and employment. This though could have been an anomaly as to Indian presence in the U.S. then and not duplicated elsewhere.

  7. I always get a kick out of telling what Bill Clinton called "the bean counters" shortly after he first took office that I'm Latino but not Hispanic. No, I'm not French or Italian, but 50% Romanian, Transylvanian to be precise. It flummoxes them to no end, and they usually end up by angrily denouncing me as "white," which shows they understand at least something. It's fun to check that "other" box whenever I can.