Indian Americans: The new model minority

The 2008 election barely ended before the GOP began touting the presidential prospects of Louisiana Gov. Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants. Tuesday, Jindal becomes the new face of his party when he delivers the official Republican response to President Obama's speech to Congress. Whether or not he actually runs for president in 2012, Jindal symbolizes a remarkable but rarely discussed phenomenon--the amazing success of Indian Americans in general, and what that success says about our immigration policy.

Most Americans know only one thing about Indians--they are really good at spelling bees. When Sameer Mishra correctly spelled guerdon last May to win the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee, he became the sixth Indian-American winner in the past 10 years. Finishing second was Sidharth Chand. Kavya Shivashankar took fourth place, and Janhnavi Iyer grabbed the eighth spot. And this was not even the banner year for Indian Americans--in 2005, the top four finishers were all of Indian descent.

In practical terms, your doctor is nine times more likely to be an Indian-American than is a random passerby on the street.

It's tempting to dismiss Indian-American dominance of the spelling bee as just a cultural idiosyncrasy. But Indian success in more important fields is just as eye-catching. Despite constituting less than 1% of the U.S. population, Indian-Americans are 3% of the nation's engineers, 7% of its IT workers and 8% of its physicians and surgeons. The overrepresentation of Indians in these fields is striking--in practical terms, your doctor is nine times more likely to be an Indian-American than is a random passerby on the street.

Indian Americans are in fact a new "model minority." This term dates back to the 1960s, when East Asians--Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent--were noted for their advanced educations and high earnings.

East Asians continue to excel in the U.S, but among minority groups, Indians are clearly the latest and greatest "model." In 2007, the median income of households headed by an Indian American was approximately $83,000, compared with $61,000 for East Asians and $55,000 for whites.

About 69% of Indian Americans age 25 and over have four-year college degrees, which dwarfs the rates of 51% and 30% achieved by East Asians and whites, respectively. Indian Americans are also less likely to be poor or in prison, compared with whites.

So why do Indian Americans perform so well? A natural answer is self-selection. Someone willing to pull up roots and move halfway around the world will tend to be more ambitious and hardworking than the average person. But people want to come to the U.S. for many reasons, some of which--being reunited with other family members, for example--have little to do with industriousness. Ultimately, immigration policy decides which kinds of qualities our immigrants possess.

Under our current immigration policy, a majority of legal immigrants to the U.S. obtain green cards (permanent residency) because they have family ties to U.S. citizens, but a small number (15% in 2007) are selected specifically for their labor market value. The proportion of Indian immigrants given an employment-related green card is one of the highest of any nationality. Consequently, it is mainly India's educated elite and their families who come to the U.S.

The success of Indian Americans is also often ascribed to the culture they bring with them, which places strong--some would even say obsessive--emphasis on academic achievement. Exhibit A is the spelling bee, which requires long hours studying etymology and memorizing word lists, all for little expected benefit other than the thrill of intellectual competition.

But education and culture can take people only so far. To be a great speller--or, more importantly, a great doctor or IT manager--you have to be smart. Just how smart are Indian Americans? We don't know with much certainty. Most data sets with information on ethnic groups do not include IQ scores, and the few that do rarely include enough cases to provide interpretable results for such a small portion of the population.

The only direct evidence we have comes from the 2003 New Immigrant Survey, in which a basic cognitive test called "digit span" was administered to a sample of newly arrived immigrant children. It is an excellent test for comparing people with disparate language and educational backgrounds, since the test taker need only repeat lengthening sequences of digits read by the examiner. Repeating the digits forward is simply a test of short-term memory, but repeating them backward is much more mentally taxing, hence a rough measure of intelligence.

When statistical adjustments are used to convert the backward digit span results to full-scale IQ scores, Indian Americans place at about 112 on a bell-shaped IQ distribution, with white Americans at 100. 112 is the 79th percentile of the white distribution. For more context, consider that Ashkenazi Jews are a famously intelligent ethnic group, and their mean IQ is somewhere around 110.

Given the small sample size, the rough IQ measure and the lack of corroborating data sets, this finding of lofty Indian-American intelligence must be taken cautiously. Nevertheless, it is entirely consistent with their observed achievement.

The superior educational attainment, academic culture and likely high IQ of Indian Americans has already made them an economic force in the U.S., and that strength can only grow. Does this continuing success imply they will become a political force? Here, Gov. Jindal is actually a rarity. Indians are still underrepresented in politics, and they do not specialize in the kinds of fields (law and finance) most conducive to political careers. Time will tell if they are able to convert economic power into serious political influence, as a Jindal presidency could.

A much clearer implication of Indian-American success is that immigrants need not be unskilled, nor must their economic integration take generations to achieve. In sharp contrast to Indian Americans, most U.S. immigrants, especially Mexican, are much less wealthy and educated than U.S. natives, even after many years in the country.

A new immigration policy that prioritizes skills over family reunification could bring more successful immigrants to the U.S. By emphasizing education, work experience and IQ in our immigration policy, immigrant groups from other national backgrounds could join the list of model minorities.

There is nothing inevitable about immigration. Who immigrates each year is a policy decision, free to be modified at any time by Congress. Constructing new legislation is always difficult, but I propose a simple starting point for immigration selection: Anyone who can spell guerdon is in!

Jason Richwine is a National Research Initiative fellow at AEI.

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