BY KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN
As mainstream news media starts paying attention to the potential nomination of Judge Sri Srinivasan, important questions of identity are cropping up. This recent New York Times article, for instance, notes that “Judge Srinivasan… would be the court’s first Indian-American” instead of the “first Asian American judge,” and many online comments ask if Indians are really considered Asians in the United States.
So here is a teachable moment on where Indians fit into the Asian American category, in a simple Q and A format:
1. Are Indians considered Asians in the United States?
Yes. Asian is a racial category (not an ethnic category). The U.S. Census Bureau, and the federal government and most state government data collection agencies, include India and the entire Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.) in the Asian racial category.
2. Are all people from Asia considered Asian Americans? Like what about Iranians?
Asian is a racial category in the United States. It is not a geographic category, although geography plays into it in some way (just think of the loaded question “where are you from?” This is usually not asked of non-Hispanic whites, unless they have a foreign accent).
As the Census Bureau notes, an Asian includes “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.” Countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Armenia do not fit that definition.
3. Why are some immigrants from the Asian continent excluded from that definition?
Short answer: Asian is a racial category that was based on racist and exclusionary laws in the United States. Longer answer: The Asian category is something that got built up over time, and based on the kinds of immigrants the United States excluded from entering the country, starting with Chinese immigrants in 1882, and continuing with more and more Asian countries, until 1917 when Congress created the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” (Japan and the Philippines are a more complicated story, and if you want to know more, read Impossible Subjects by Mae Ngai or our book on Asian American Political Participation).
Iranians, Armenians, etc. were considered white and could become U.S. citizens. Asian immigrants (like Indian and Japanese immigrants) could not become U.S. citizens, as the Supreme court ruled in two important cases: Ozawa and Thind. This is another reason why appointing an Asian immigrant to the high court would be such a huge symbolic and historic move, as I wrote for NBCNews.com here.
4. Does Srinivasan consider himself Asian American?
Yes. Judge Srinivasan has been a member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), and you can see his speech to the group in 2013. It’s one of the few recorded public speeches that Srinivasan has given, and gives you a sense of his humor (and his identity). And the feeling is mutual: NAPABA has gone to bat for Srinivasan before, and is doing so again now.
5. So, should we call Srinivasan Indian, or Asian, or both?
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans has an excellent media advisory on this. As they note: “To identify Judge Srinivasan solely as the ‘first Indian American Justice’ would be analogous to limiting Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the ‘first Puerto Rican Justice,’ rather than the ‘first Hispanic Justice.'” So, the answer depends on the context. Indians are considered Asian American, and Srinivasan himself has been part of Asian American groups, so it would be misleading to exclude the fact that he would also be the “first Asian American Supreme Court justice.”
6. Can we expect Asian groups to mobilize around Srinivasan?
I have a piece in the Washington Post that starts answering this question. The closest example we have so far is the nomination battle over Vivek Murthy (also an immigrant, and an Indian American who identifies as Asian American). In some ways, the Murthy nomination battle might have been even bigger, with the NRA opposing his nomination. Many Asian American (or pan-Asian) groups mobilized in support of Murthy, but it was not an election-defining nomination fight, so groups were not trying to mobilize voters and donors in the same way.
We would be in uncharted here if Srinivasan gets nominated, and we can see not only if Asian American voters and donors might get energized, but also other groups like immigrants, Latinos, African Americans, partisan Democrats, environmentalists, and so on. This makes it very exciting for research as well as continuing our national conversation on race and identity.
7. Where can I find out more about survey research on Asian American and Indian identity and politics?
Featured image ADAPTED from STANFORD LAW/ATHERINE LAMBERT