Looking for Sikhs in the Asian American rise

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success, according to a comprehensive new nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center.

— The quote above is from the overview written in The Pew Research Center’s study, The Rise of Asian Americans.  The opening of their study with this statement has been the subject of debate.

The Rise of Asian Americans was released this past week to much media attention. The study is based on data from a telephone survey of over 3,500 Asian Americans aged 18 and above “to enable findings to be reported about each of the six largest country of origin subgroups as well as about the Asian-American population as a whole”.

It is the “as a whole” framing of Asian Americans that makes the Pew study problematic and has resulted in the report not being received with completely open arms by the Asian American community. The big-picture conclusions drawn from the Pew study mask significant variation in the experiences of subgroups in this population. According to the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) in their response to the Pew report:

…when it comes to educational attainment, certain subgroups of Asian Americans, such as Cambodians and Bangladeshis, have greater difficulties accessing and thriving in the school system. According to the American Community Survey, from 2002 to 2010, the number of Asian Americans in poverty has increased by 46%. Studies show that more than 2.3 million Asian Americans are uninsured. And, despite the Pew report’s conclusion that racial discrimination is not a priority issue for Asian Americans, we know that our communities are facing civil rights violations ranging from profiling to employment discrimination.

While the study does discuss variations among Asian American subgroups on several measures, the big-picture conclusions do not reflect the differences among subgroups. Additionally, even within subgroups, there can be significant variation. For example, it is not an unreasonable assertion that the Sikh American experience is different than that of other Indian American populations due to the very physically distinct nature of Sikhs. Secondly, The Rise of Asian Americans does not seem to adequately discuss the full experience of this minority group.

Further, definitions around race in the Sikh and South Asian context in this country has also been historically dynamic and complex. At the recent Sikholars conference in California, Jasmine Singh provided a discussion called “Racialization of Sikhs in the United States” that tracked  how race definitions were applied to Sikhs. One wonders if the variable definition of race as it pertains to Sikhs has played a role in this survey.

Next month, the Pew Forum will release another study around religious affiliation and practices based on this survey population. However, a brief review of The Rise of Asian Americans study and its conclusions as it relates to Sikh Americans might be useful.

"The six largest country of origin groups each number more than a million people" (source: pewsocialtrends.org)

“The six largest country of origin groups each number more than a million people” (source: pewsocialtrends.org)

The actual number of Sikhs in the United States is unclear because the US Census does not capture statistics around religious affiliation. This has been an issue for Sikh Americans for many years.

According to the Pew study, there are over 17 million Asian Americans in the United States and 1% of these are Sikhs, which suggests that there are over 170,000 adult Sikhs of Asian descent who reside the United States.  This population size is less than that claimed by other studies, which range from 200,000 to the often-cited 500,000. Of course, the Pew study would not include non-adults nor Sikhs not of Asian origin.

When the Sikh American population estimate in this study is juxtaposed with estimates of Indian Sikh immigration to the United States, the comparison yields an unreasonable conclusion. An extrapolation of data from Pew Forum’s study, Faith on the Move, suggests that 86,000 Sikhs from India immigrated to the United States in 2010, which does not seem reasonable given the estimate of Sikh Americans in The Rise of Asian Americans study. Either the number of migrant Sikhs is being over-estimated, or the number of resident American Sikhs is under-estimated.

Unfortunately, there is little else to glean in specific relation to Sikh Americans out of The Rise of Asian Americans study.  When the study looks at the Indian American demographic, there are many conclusions that promote the “model minority” stereotype.  However, the study neglects discussion of issues specific to the Sikh American experience, in particular:

  • Civil rights issues such as hate crimes, employment discrimination, racial profiling, freedom of religion
  • A detailed study of population and demographics, including Sikh Americans not of Asian descent
  • Issues pertaining to children, and specifically Sikh children

Some of these are addressed in the Sikh Coalition’s Bay Area Civil Rights Report 2010, but we are lacking the national perspective.

While certainly a significant undertaking, The Rise of the Asian Americans does not appear to adequately represent the Sikh American community and therefore does not provide much in the way of new information in this context.


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