South Asians in Houston — A Review of “Redefining the Immigrant South”

Quraishi, Uzma. Redefining the Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston During the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 

Reviewed by Iliana Yamileth Rodriguez

In 1965, the United States passed the Immigration and Nationality Act against the backdrop of the Cold War. Extending preference to skilled migrants, allowing for family reunifications, and imposing quota restrictions on the Western hemisphere for the first time, the law resulted in a permanent reconfiguration of migration patterns to the United States. Amongst those deemed favorable migrants were countless South Asians, including students in search of higher education opportunities. It is this history and these migrants, educated middle class South Asians hailing from India and Pakistan, that animate the pages of Uzma Quraishi’s Redefining the Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston During the Cold War

The book interweaves questions about race, ethnicity, and class as they relate to individual and familial migration strategies, class status, and community making in a transitional southern city. Using archival research, original oral histories, demographic and census data, as well as GIS mapping techniques, Quraishi offers an expansive transnational history. She shows how migrants strategically used immigration legislation, higher education, and local knowledge about race and place to make a life for themselves in Houston, Texas. 

The organization of Redefining the Immigrant South is itself significant, following the migration trajectory of South Asians to the U.S. South. Readers are first introduced to India and Pakistan’s post-Partition formation and the centrality of education to nation-building projects in the mid-twentieth century. Simultaneously, the United States sought to foster sympathy for its Cold War agenda through establishing ideological connections with each countries’ respective middle class. As Quraishi illustrates, these mid-century efforts both informed and coincided with the 1965 Immigration Act, which facilitated the increased and sustained migration of middle class South Asians to the United States. The book then focuses on the localized experiences of these migrants in Houston.

Redefining the Immigrant South is at its best when Quraishi follows her interlocutors on their journeys between the University of Houston and the city’s suburbs. Interviewees explain how the university and surrounding neighborhoods structured their diasporic community and understandings of everyday life in a growing southern city, and how these experiences shaped later decisions about where to buy their homes. Just as she examines South Asians’ strategies in migrating to the United States, Quraishi illustrates how migrants strategically moved throughout metropolitan Houston to maintain middle class status and communal connections. The author introduces the idea of “brown flight,” which she defines as a “pattern of well-educated, high-earning South Asians settling in affluent suburban areas.” This contribution to studies of ethnic place-making offers a framework with which to also examine suburbanization processes underway in other U.S. cities.

Redefining the Immigrant South might have gone further to complicate the idea of “brown” and brownness as it relates to race and place. By this, I refer to the fact that diverse communities, including South Asians and some Latinxs, have used “brown” as a racial descriptor, as well as for building community and solidarity. However, this falls outside of the project’s main aim, though it may be a point of interest and further research for readers. Importantly, Quraishi does provide a nuanced look at how racialized ideas about ethnicity, class, and place impacted neighborhood and school choice for South Asians in Houston. In turn, South Asian individuals (un)intentionally retrenched notions of the Asian model minority myth and antiblackness as they moved to suburbs with “good” schools (synonymous with whiter schools). Quraishi covers these difficult and necessary topics with care towards her interlocutors’ lived experiences, while still offering a complex history of how minoritized populations resist their own racialization and, in the process, may sign on to existent U.S. racial hierarchies.   

Redefining the Immigrant South will be of interest to a wide-ranging audience, especially to readers interested in immigration history, southern history, Asian American history, urban history, and ethnic studies. It should also be required reading for anyone conducting research on recent urban histories, as Quraishi lays out a historical and spatial methodology that attends to the lived realities of the community she examines in order to narrate (sub)urban change over time in the late twentieth century. In sum, this book is a wonderful contribution to a growing collection of ethnic southern histories that examine the region’s global connections, legacies of antiblackness, marginalization of Asian and Latinx communities, and the South’s diverse metropolitan spaces.

Yami Rodriguez is a historian of U.S. Latinx communities whose work engages questions of race, ethnicity, labor, and migration. With a regional focus on the U.S. South, Rodriguez’s scholarship examines Latinx histories alongside ethnic political, economic, and cultural place-making practices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her manuscript project, “Mexican Atlanta: Migrant Place-Making in the Latinx South,” traces the history of Metro Atlanta’s ethnic Mexican community formation since the 1970s. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at Emory University.

Featured Image (at top): The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the first Hindu temple of its kind in North America, is just outside of Houston. Ellsasha, “Shri Swaminarayan Mandir,” 2017, Flickr.

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