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Caste Discrimination Exists in the U.S., Too—But a Movement to Outlaw It Is Growing

10 minute read
Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University
Subramanian is Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies and Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University

In late January, California State University added caste to its non-discrimination policy. With more than 437,000 students and 44,000 employees statewide, it is the largest academic institution to do so. But it is not alone. Brandeis University was the first to take this step in 2019. University of California, Davis, Colby College, Colorado College, the Claremont colleges, and Carleton University followed suit. In August 2021, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category to their Party Code of Conduct. And in December 2021, the Harvard Graduate Student Union ratified its collective bargaining agreement, which included caste as a protected category for its members.

What is caste? How is caste discrimination expressed? And why are protections against caste discrimination an urgent issue in the U.S.?

Caste is a descent-based structure of inequality in which privilege works through the control of land, labor, education, media, white-collar professions and political institutions. Some seventy years after independence from colonial rule, the specter of casteism continues to haunt South Asia. The unequal inheritances of caste shape every aspect of social life, from education to marriage, housing, and employment. Caste discrimination still plagues all South Asian societies, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. To this day, oppressed castes are subject to stigma on the basis of perceived social and intellectual inferiority, and often consigned to the most exploitative segments of the labor market. This is especially true of Dalits, which is the broad term for the community that occupies the bottom rung of the caste ladder and suffers the unique stigma of untouchability. Dalits continue to face pervasive violence, humiliation, and exclusion. The coronavirus pandemic has only amplified the practice of ‘untouchability’ through the segregating and shunning of stigmatized groups.

The ugly realities of caste inequality and discrimination also shape the lives of South Asian communities in the diaspora. In the U.S., two recent lawsuits have exposed the pervasiveness of caste dynamics far beyond the borders of South Asia.

The first lawsuit was filed in June 2020 against the software company Cisco Systems. Brought by the California Department for Fair Employment and Housing, it alleges that the company failed to address caste discrimination against an employee from the Dalit caste by two supervisors from more privileged caste backgrounds.

The second was filed in May 2021 against the Hindu trust BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha), a nonprofit that since 2009 has had the status of a 501 (c)(3) organization. It was brought by lawyers representing a group of Dalits who claim that they were brought to the United States under the R1 visa for religious workers and forced into underpaid, exploitative construction work on a Hindu temple in New Jersey. Both lawsuits reveal practices of caste discrimination and exploitation within America’s racially stratified workforce.

These lawsuits reflect long-standing trends within U.S. immigration. The 1965 Hart-Cellar Act legalized a preference for professional class migrants, such as doctors and engineers, from all over the world, even as it sought to undo the racial prejudices of the immigration laws that it replaced. The shift in immigration policy ensured that South Asians from dominant castes—the ones with privileged access to education and white-collar professions—were overrepresented in the United States in comparison to the South Asian population at large. The caste inequities of Indian education have allowed these groups to use their privilege to immigrate and succeed professionally.

The highly selective character of the professional South Asian American population has therefore created the conditions for caste bias and discrimination in hiring and promotion. This is especially the case in the U.S. technology sector, which has significant privileged caste representation. Although the first to be made public, the experience of the Dalit employee in the Cisco case is not uncommon. Following the filing of the case, Dalit tech workers employed in some of the biggest companies have come forward to attest to rampant caste bias. Most feel compelled to conceal their caste identities and pass as non-Dalits in workplaces that they share with members of more privileged castes. They experience these workplaces as minefields where colleagues from privileged castes might probe their backgrounds to find out their origins and where a misstep can lead to exposure and stigma. These workers indicate a clear preference for non-South Asian supervisors whose ignorance of caste ensures fairer treatment. While such testimonies provide an important starting point for understanding the employment experiences of oppressed castes in the U.S., more data on caste demographics is needed to reveal the scale of the problem.

These lawsuits underscore the need for adding caste to the existing set of categories that are protected against discrimination under federal law. The legal recognition of caste as a protected category will destigmatize caste identification and ensure that vulnerable caste groups do not feel threatened when revealing their identities. Most importantly, making caste a protected category would recognize a form of discrimination that deeply affects marginalized South Asian caste groups—highlighting prejudices that have been invisible for too long.

However, there are some South Asian Americans who argue that the legal recognition of caste discrimination would be harmful to South Asians in the U.S. One of the most prominent groups that has come out against adding caste to U.S. anti-discrimination law is the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). HAF contends that doing so will “single out and target Indian Americans for scrutiny and discrimination.” In her testimony at an April 29 public hearing on a proposal to recognize caste discrimination in Santa Clara, California, HAF Executive Director, Suhag Shukla, characterized caste as “a stereotype.” She asserted that if caste were added as a protected category, it would be used to “uniquely target South Asians, Indians, and Hindus for ethno-religious profiling, monitoring, and policing.” HAF also opposes the legal recognition of caste on the grounds that doing so will “target” the Hindu religion.

But caste is not a mere stereotype about South Asian societies. It is a lived reality that promotes unequal access to life, livelihood, and the capacity for human flourishing. Furthermore, caste must not be conflated with a nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Scholars have long shown, and human rights reports document, that caste exists across all South Asian nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Testimonies at the Santa Clara hearing also confirmed this reality by attesting to casteism among South Asian Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike. Spurious arguments about “Hinduphobia” should thus not be used to shield caste from scrutiny.

HAF’s arguments assume that dignity and rights are a zero-sum game. Extending protections to oppressed castes will not scapegoat Hindus, Indians, and South Asians any more than extending protections to women scapegoats men. To the contrary, acknowledging the realities of caste discrimination and any actions for accountability and justice that follow upon it would only expand the commitment to equal rights, inclusion, and dignity.

Opponents of making caste a protected category also argue that it would force South Asian Americans and their children to think of themselves in terms of caste identity. At the Santa Clara public hearing, for instance, several individuals speaking against the proposal testified that, as Americans, they no longer identify as members of castes. Privileged castes in the United States may well insist that they do not see or believe in caste. They may well believe that caste classification would impose an identity that they do not claim. But just as race-blindness does not erase racial privilege or disadvantage, caste-blindness does not erase caste privilege or disadvantage. Indeed, the claim to being caste-blind is itself an expression of privilege. As is clear from Dalit testimonies, oppressed castes do not have the luxury of caste blindness.

Caste and race cannot and should not be conflated. Yet, a broad parallel may be drawn between the experiences of racial minorities and oppressed caste groups in the U.S. While members of South Asian American communities rightly draw attention to the long history of racial exclusion and discrimination they have experienced in the U.S., those of privileged caste backgrounds simultaneously resist acknowledging the abiding ugliness of caste discrimination within their communities.

Unfortunately, it is this very history of racial discrimination that is now being wielded against protections for oppressed castes. HAF even contends that making caste a protected category would perpetuate colonial violence. In his testimony in Santa Clara, HAF Managing Director, Samir Kalra, stated that caste is a “British created legal category” and an identity “that was forced on South Asians.” He and other HAF members insist that caste is a colonial invention that was and could again be used as a weapon of white supremacy. But caste is a power difference that existed well before colonialism and did not end with it. As noted in a recent scholarly article, caste has long been “a total social fact” in South Asian societies. The Indian Constitution recognizes the deep history of caste inequality and has enacted various laws to combat and correct it. The Cisco and BAPS lawsuits demonstrate that caste inequality and discrimination have been carried by South Asians to the United States. Should different rules apply here simply because South Asians are a racial minority?

The same South Asian American groups that equate caste protections in the US with “Hinduphobia” also oppose any criticism of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, the political movement that has captured state power in India. For instance, HAF’s founder, Mihir Meghani, is the author of “Hindutva – the Great Nationalist Ideology,” an essay that was published on the website of India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. After the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, HAF has also lobbied U.S. lawmakers to adopt pro-Indian Government positions on the abrogation of the special status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and on the Citizenship Amendment Act, a discriminatory law targeting Muslims.

But just as caste protections are not anti-Hindu, neither is criticism of Hindutva. Hindutva is an authoritarian political ideology aimed at transforming India from a secular democracy to a Hindu majoritarian country where Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities are relegated to second-class citizenship. Under the current Hindu nationalist government in India, there has been a precipitous rise in religious and caste violence targeting Muslims, Christians, and Dalits and widespread crackdowns on dissenters who are languishing in prison without due process. South Asian American groups like HAF are thus engaged in a form of double-speak: they weaponize religious and racial minority protections in the U.S. while defending majoritarianism in India.

By twisting anti-discrimination protections for oppressed castes into racial and religious discrimination, those who oppose making caste a protected category distract attention from the pressing problem of caste in America. This defense of minority rights might appear progressive but we must recognize it for what it is: a defense of caste privilege by diasporic South Asians who are its beneficiaries. As a minority within a minority in the U.S., oppressed castes must get the recognition and protection they deserve.

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