How Indian-Americans are discriminated against in US

If you’re applying to any Ivy League university and your last name is Patel, changing it to Smith might just make the difference you need to get in.

 |  9-minute read |   08-08-2016
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India is not getting its due in the world. Indians are not getting their due in the world. Indian-Americans are not getting their due in America. They are all connected. Let me explain the last part.

In this country ballyhooed by arguments of equality for all races and ethnicities, the Asian-Americans (the definition of which in US includes Indian-Americans) have become the new race group against whom it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate. Do not worry much - they will never protest in the streets and cause a scene, so go ahead, ignore them.     

Also read: Why I feel second generation Indians in US will not be as successful 

As former president of the ASEI-NCC, the national capital chapter of the ASEI, an organisation of Indian-American engineers, I was invited by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) to speak at the National Press Club here in Washington DC in May this year.

The ASEI-NCC is one of the 120 signatories to this complaint of discrimination against Indian-Americans. I am not a lawyer and so opted to refrain from legal aspects here but instead attempted to make some philosophical arguments from my heart - with at least a bit of my mind.

The Asian American Coalition for Education was formed in 2015 after a case against Harvard University was filed with the department of education by a coalition of 60-plus Asian-American organisations in the US.

AACE then, in May 2016, filed a similar case against Yale, Brown and Dartmouth.  

If you’re applying to any of these Ivy League institutions and your last name is Wong or Patel, changing it to Smith or Lopez might just make the difference you need to get in (although they do have caveats to catch such identity thieves).

ivybd_080816092520.jpg Ivy League universities routinely reject "Asian" applicants in favour of whites and other minorities with lower test scores and grades.

They routinely reject "Asian" applicants in favour of whites and sought-after minorities like African-Americans and now Hispanic Americans, with lower test scores and grades.

Enrolment data reveals that Harvard limits Asian-Americans to a flat 15-18 per cent of the student body, year after year, though they increasingly dominate the top of the applicant pool.

To smoke out ethnicity, Harvard requires applicants to provide their parents’ place of birth, mother’s maiden name and whether their family has ever changed its surname. These questions, along with an interview requirement, were devised in the 1920s to limit the number of Jewish students.

Also read: Can non-resident Indians please shut up?

Now Asians are the new Jews, welcome only in limited numbers. It was deemed unacceptable then but it has been deemed perfectly acceptable now to have the same covenant for Asian-Americans.

Even the US Supreme Court agreed. So there is an open invitation to go ahead and discriminate against the Asian-Americans; it is quite kosher to do so.

Many other Ivy League universities have followed suit and devised their own methods to do the same. The AACE filed a suit against them in May of this year and held a press conference at the National Press Club.

It is painful for me to say this, but the problem is larger - this is just the tip of the iceberg. To a large extent, what the Ivy League universities are doing is a reflection of what the American society at large thinks of us and how it treats us.

Asian-Americans are a visibly different-looking minority. When you see us, you can tell. Forty years after coming here and 30 years after becoming a citizen, I am still pegged as a "foreigner" by many. It is very painful.

New African or European immigrants of just a few years will be immediately accepted and believed as Americans and disappear in the American society. We are not afforded the same benefit, even if we have been here for many decades or many generations even. Darn it, we just look different!

There is now blatant yet subtle discrimination in this country against Asian-Americans that goes unnoticed, unsaid and is ignored, even more so than I remember from 20-30 years ago.

This has left me wondering. I will offer an example: A few years back the top three spelling bee winners were Asian-American kids, as were the toppers of 13 of the last 17 years and all since 2008.

Also read: India will be the big gainer in the Modi-NRI romance

But when Hollywood made a movie on this subject, called Akeelah and the Bee, it was not about Asian-American kids but about an African-American contestant. Why? Because we can spell but we do not count. How would the country have reacted if the roles were reversed? Please be kind to us - or at least fair.

Another observation: I could feel no sympathy for Jada Pinkett Smith or the "Oscar So White" protest. I did not know whether to laugh or cry at this protest.

Forget about not being nominated for Oscars, we Asian-Americans, the other large “visible” minority, are not even welcome in American homes on TV or movie screens.

Forget major roles, forget "roles with some meat". We get almost no roles. Period. Why?

And when we have one Indian-American playing a major role, of Rajesh Koothrappali on a very successful The Big Bang Theory (doing a great job there, by the way), and more recently with one more (Priyanka Chopra), Indian-Americans here express supreme elation at being included.

Really? We have been on earth just as long as anyone else, and deserve the same share, even in the US.

We are one of the oldest and most advanced civilisations of that age. Why then this squeamishness, this reticence about asking for a fair share? 

With Hispanic population in US at 48.9 million (16.1 per cent), and Asian-American at 15.3 million (5.03 per cent), making them together almost one in five Americans (2010 Census), one would think that about one in five characters on TV shows or commercials would be one of them – everything else being equal.

Pick any one hour on TV in the US, any hour, and if one does not find even one-fiftieth, one has a right to wonder.

And then there is the category of Native Americans. This country used to belong to them but now their presence on screen of any kind or in other media is near absolute zero, as if they have been wiped off clean and intentionally so.

Almost one-third to half of the revenue of a Hollywood movie is from the worldwide audience. Well, in Hollywood, one out of four person in this world is and looks South Asian (1.75 billion out of 7.2 billion) and one in three is and looks East Asian (2.3 billion). You cannot ignore us nor is it fair. Wake up and smell the coffee.

Surely something is far from kosher here also. What is happening to us is much larger, and the media refuses to talk about it. 

Are these examples more than merely a reflection of what Hollywood does to emulate what they perceive to be prevalent in the society at large?

Or, more painfully, was it actually an interpolation from a more generalised sentiment? Yes, you can come and work here, perhaps, but, about being part of the society here, oh, we are not too sure.

I will recite what Martin Luther King Jr said. He said he looked forward to "a day when people will be judged based on the content of their character rather than the skin colour (race)".

These Asian-American students are trying hard to improve the content of their character, and they are still being judged on the basis of their race by these Ivy League universities, effectively being punished for their race. I thought that was how racism was defined.

I came here with $6 in my pocket. I studied hard, finished a PhD and became a rocket scientist with hard work.

Now I am being effectively told by Yale, Brown and Dartmouth, and other such Ivy League institutions that it was a mistake to have worked so hard; the same goes for my nieces and nephews, and that they and others would be punished for the same hard work.

We do not want any favours, but we certainly do not deserve a punishment. How is that fair in this country? To be considered at the same level in admission to Harvard, an Asian-American has to have almost 140 points higher than a white, 270 higher than a Hispanic, and 450 higher than an African American in SAT scores.

Why this punishment? Is it fair to Asian-American youth who have a different sieve to go through and compete against each other, simply because of their race?

The discrimination against Asian-American students is increasingly severe.

Another specific example: of over 700 students in the class of 2015 graduates of Western High School in Davie, Florida, the top four were Asian-Americans (three were Indian Americans) with outstanding academic and extracurricular achievements.

Yet, none of them was accepted by Ivy League universities, while five non-Asian class members, all ranked lower or even unranked, were accepted by Ivy League institutions, including Yale, Penn, Brown, and Cornell. This is a very compelling example of selective discrimination. 

I will admit, Indian-Americans are not known as the best athletes. So if it really was about diversity, why did they not give preference to them in their basketball teams or their sailing teams? But no, there they go by merit, and rightly so. Then why not when it comes to academics?

Do it for everything if you want to be fair, or do not do it for anything, but you cannot selectively do it for one thing and not for other.

Why is this being done? Please be fair. That is all we are asking for.

The implication is: we want you to come here as immigrants and do well, but hey, if you do well, we will put barriers in front of you. We will decide in which field you are supposed to do well and how much.

I thought here in this country EVERYONE had equal opportunities. This is a clear case of where it is not the case.


Ajay Kothari Ajay Kothari @ajaypkothari

The writer is President and Founder of Astrox Corporation, an Aerospace R&D company located in suburban Washington DC.

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