VOLUME 28 NO. 11 | MARCH 7- MARCH 13, 2009

Indian American profile up, from politics to film

Last updated 3-5-09 at 2:47 p.m.
Aziz Ansari (Photo by Jakob Lodwick), Padma Lakshmi (David Shankbone), Anoop Desai

By Dan Sewell

CINCINNATI (AP) — Jai Ho! The years-long wave of immigration from India is creating a rising tide of visibility for Indian Americans in the United States.

The past few weeks have underscored their increasingly high profile: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress, while Dr. Sanjay Gupta is under consideration to be Obama’s surgeon general.

Model and cooking author Padma Lakshmi finished another “Top Chef” TV season and then became the celebrity face for a new Procter & Gamble Co. Pantene shampoo line and a Hardee’s hamburger promotion.

Anoop Desai, dubbed “Noop Dogg,” drew fans with his singing on this year’s “American Idol,” and Aziz Ansari was in TV’s medical comedy “Scrubs” before moving to a regular role in the upcoming comedy series “Parks and Recreation.”

Meanwhile, Americans have embraced “Slumdog Millionaire” and the cast of the India ghetto-to-glory movie that won eight Oscars, including Best Picture and the song “Jai Ho” (“Be Victorious”), and dominated last week’s entertainment talk shows.

“It’s just been amazing,” Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor and dean of student affairs for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York, said of the soaring profile of Indian Americans. “And it’s only going to grow. The more visible you get, the more acceptance you get. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.”

Indian Americans have been one of the fastest-growing and most successful immigrant groups, though Sreenivasan and other Indian Americans are quick to point out that some Indians continue to struggle economically and socially in the United States.

The U.S. Census estimates two years ago showed some 2.6 million people of Indian ancestry, including immigrants and U.S.-born, a jump of nearly 1 million from 2000.

For years, Indian Americans have proliferated in the United States in the fields of health care, information technology, and engineering with higher education levels and incomes than national averages. And recent years have brought more Indian heads of major U.S. companies — PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi is among about a dozen current CEOs.

Indian Americans are also making their presence felt in journalism. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, have their own weekend shows on CNN, for example.

Gupta and Jindal demonstrate a deepening role in U.S. politics and government.

While Jindal’s potential as a 2012 presidential candidate may have been set back by his widely criticized and even ridiculed TV rebuttal to Obama’s speech to Congress, Louisiana demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher said the governor has good support among Republican Party leaders and conservatives.

Stonecipher thinks Jindal, 37, is being pushed too quickly by Republicans, such as some in the South who see him as a bridge over the historically troubled waters of white–Black division — particularly in a state where David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, was still a political force in the 1990s.

“Conservatives are pleased to find an ethnic group that is politically correct in America behind which they can gather,” Stonecipher said, adding that Indian Americans are respected for a reputation for dedication to family, work, and education.

Fellow Indian American Democrat Jay Goyal was elected to Ohio’s Legislature in 2006 at 26. In his second term, he has already risen to become the House’s majority whip. In Maryland, Democrat Kumbar Barve is the House majority leader.

Actor Kal Penn was a campaign surrogate for Obama across the country last year and was the floor manager for the Virginia delegation at the Democratic national convention. Besides acting in movies, including the “Harold & Kumar” comedies, he’s a regular in the TV medical drama “House.”

“Even in the last decade, I have seen a great shift towards embracing people of color or multiethnic people, just in mainstream life,” said Padma Lakshmi. “For what I do, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity I am. … We are all co-mingled in each other’s lives. I think it makes for a more well-rounded and interesting society.” (end)


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