Fall Of The White Wall
In 1849, the British annexed the Punjab region into the rest of its colonial holdings in India. The subsequent land reform laws disenfranchised many Punjabis, and younger generations were encouraged to find work abroad. Their destinations ranged from British territories in Africa to the Caribbean to Hong Kong and Singapore to Canada. Many made their way into the northwestern United States, where an economic boom was in the works. From Washington to Oregon, and eventually California, the Indian immigrants worked in the lumber industry, found jobs building railroads, and worked in the orchards and vineyards throughout the Sacramento and Imperial valleys. Having crossed the hurdle of admission to the United States, immigrants from India faced resistance from European and American laborers who were in competition with them for jobs and who feared they would be willing to work for lower wages. This resistance assumed tangible form in racist organizations such as the Asian Exclusion League.
"The preservation of the Caucasian race upon American soil" was the constitutional objective of the Asian Exclusion League. To achieve that end they pressured lumber mills into laying off Indian workers, lobbied to stop further immigration, and fomented riots to drive Indians from their homes. While not condoning the crude methods of the Asian Exclusion League, still the United States Congress, Judiciary, and Bureau of Immigration were sympathetic to their objective and the immigrants from India found themselves confronted by a great White wall. The group was responsible for violent incidents, such as the "Anti-Hindu" riot in 1907 at Bellingham, Washington. The word “Hindu,” meaning people from Hindustan, as India was popularly called then, was used then for Indian immigrants to differentiate from Native Indians.
On the night of September 4, 1907, a mob of between 400 and 500 white men attacked Bellingham's Hindu colonies. Many of the Hindus were beaten. Some escaped from their quarters in their night clothes. Several sought refuge on the tide flats. Others were driven toward the city limits or jailed. During the course of the disturbance, the indignation of the crowd was fanned to action by speakers who addressed impromptu audiences on the street corners and incited citizens to "help drive out the cheap labor." Unfortunately, the Bellingham riot was mirrored by similar assaults in California during the months that followed in Marysville, Stege, Live Oak, and other communities where the immigrants had settled.
These incidents, however, didn't reflect the attitude of the whole community. As the immigrants continued to work hard and achieve success some of their neighbors began to accept them. A retrospective account in the Daily Astorian gives an idea of how Indian workers were viewed in Astoria, one Oregon mill town. "We thought they were terrible coming with their turbans," said Hattie Spencer. "We were afraid of them at first. But my dad said, 'They have to make a living same as the rest of us. We are foreigners too.' Chris Simonsen remembered the men in "Hindu Alley" making "chapatti pancakes" patting the dough between their hands. The Indians were especially well-known for their prowess and agility in wrestling. "They were light-heavyweight champions," Bill Wootton said. Helmer Lindstrom remembered that the Indians "never undercut wages" -- they wouldn't work for less than the other employees. And most of the Astoria community considered the Hindus "vastly interesting and peaceable."
Citizenship remained an elusive dream, despite a major change in the attitude of many people towards the pioneer immigrants, until arrival of a prominent individual from Punjab, Dalip Singh Saund, on the scene. He came to the United States as a student and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the next 20 years of his life, he worked in agriculture and became a successful businessman. Saund advocated for the rights of Indian immigrants to attain citizenship. In 1946, the Luce-Cellar Bill passed through the U.S. Congress and granted citizenship to the existing Indian immigrants in the country. Later in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act overturned the racially discriminating bias against non-Whites and allowed all immigrants the opportunity to become naturalized. In 1957, as a member of the Democratic Party representing District 29, the Riverside and Imperial valleys of California, Saund became the first Asian to hold a congressional office.
“This system violated the basic principle of American democracy -- the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country. Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.” -- from President Lyndon B. Johnson's address to mark the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 3 October 1965
The Act created a wide crack in the great White wall. In era of civil rights awareness, the system, which heavily favored northern Europeans, had come under increasing attack as being racially biased. The Immigration and Nationality Act led to a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from all over South Asia. Majority of the new immigrants, like most of the students who had come in the early years, were scientists, engineers and doctors. In California, the post-1965 group with Networking ambitions became a force in Silicon Valley and major urban centers, emerging in recent years as successful entrepreneurs and professionals and have achieved notable economic success. On American campuses, second- and third- generation South Asian Americans have made their presence felt. In the University of California system alone, six endowed chairs and two lecture endowments in South Asian studies have been established, funded almost entirely by members of the South Asian American community. In the political arena too, they are progressing to make their presence noticed with the position of Governors in two states and high ranking officials in both the political parties as well as at the White House.
As of today, with over a century of hard and honest work along with love and loyalty for their adopted country, the estimated three million Indian Americans community feels proud of its presence here and happy to have contributed to the eventual fall of the White wall.