The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last month to the San Francisco area highlighted a signal immigration story: The great prominence of Indian-born entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley and the key role they play in America’s technological dynamism.  But an equally important, if under-noticed, tale was also at play: How the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society has changed the way all Americans think about India and the resulting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

Read the full essay at Foreign Policy‘s website.

This piece is cross-posted at Monsters Abroad, my blog on U.S. foreign policy.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

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Missing the Real Story about Miss America

I have a commentary piece in tomorrow’s San Jose Mercury News (on-line version up now) that argues:

Much of the focus since Nina Davuluri’s crowning as this year’s Miss America has been on the racist attacks on social media directed at this impressive woman who is the pageant’s first winner of Indian heritage.  But the real story here is the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society and how that has changed the way all Americans think about India.

The piece is based on a more detailed post from earlier this year about how large-scale Indian migration has altered American perceptions about the country.  According to a recent Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of the U.S. public has a positive impression of India, a score that even edges out Israel’s traditionally high favorability rating.  Compare that to a 1983 opinion poll in which Americans ranked India at the bottom of a list of 22 countries on the basis of perceived importance to U.S. vital interests.

Two updates are worth noting since my post first appeared.  The first is a new publication by the Migration Policy Institute that finds:

As a group, immigrants from India are better educated, more likely to have strong English language skills and arrive on employment-based visas, and are less likely to live below the federal poverty line than the overall foreign-born population. They are also more concentrated in the working ages than immigrants overall….

The second update is the just-released data from the Census Bureau showing that much of the nation’s population growth is fueled by newcomers from Asia rather than Hispanic immigrants.  Indian immigrants (over 110,000 in 2012) account for a full third of last year’s increase in the nation’s foreign-born Asia population.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

According to a new Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of the U.S. public has a positive impression of India, a score that even edges out Israel’s traditionally-high favorability rating.  This is the latest indicator of how decisively American perceptions about the country have changed.  Not too long ago, India was regarded as the very epitome of what the term “Third World” meant – decrepit, destitute and pitiable.  Yet in a relatively short period of time, the popular view of India has changed in critical ways.

For many decades most Americans were inclined to the views of President Harry S. Truman, who dismissed India at its birth as an independent state as “pretty jammed with poor people and cows wandering around streets, witch doctors and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges.”  His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had an even more incisive perspective: “by and large [Indians] and their country give me the creeps.”  When Daniel Patrick Moynihan was U.S. ambassador to India from 1973-75, he regularly lamented that Washington was utterly indifferent to the country’s fate; writing in his diary, he confided that it “is American practice to pay but little attention to India.”  In a cable to the State Department, he complained of dismissive attitudes, “a kind of John Birch Society contempt for the views of raggedly ass people in pajamas on the other side of the world.”

Public opinion kept close track with official attitudes in Washington.  Harold Issacs’s classic 1958 survey of U.S. elite opinion, Scratches on Our Minds, revealed that influential Americans held very negative perceptions of the country, associating it with “filth, dirt and disease,” along with debased religious beliefs.  A State Department analysis prepared in the early 1970s found that U.S. public opinion identified India more than any other nation with such attributes as disease, death and illiteracy, and school textbooks throughout this period regularly portrayed it in a most negative light.  This view was again underscored in a 1983 opinion poll, in which Americans ranked India at the bottom of a list of 22 countries on the basis of perceived importance to U.S. vital interests.

So, what accounts for the significant shift in perceptions? Continue reading