Caste Discrimination Exists in the U.S., Too—But a Movement to Outlaw It Is Growing
California State University included caste in its policy against discrimination. It is the biggest academic institution in California to add this feature, with more than 437,000 students across the state and over 44,000 employees. It isn’t the only one. Brandeis University took this first step in 2019 University of California Davis. Colby College. Colorado College. Claremont Colleges. Carleton University also followed. California Democratic Party (CDP) added caste to its Party Code of conduct in August 2021. In December 2021 the Harvard Graduate Student Union approved its collective bargaining arrangement, which also included caste for its members.
What is the meaning of caste? What is the definition of caste? What is the urgency of protecting against caste discrimination in the United States?
Casteism is an inheritance-based system of inequalities that allows privilege to be derived through control over land, labor and education. The specter casteism still haunts South Asia, seventy-years after the country was liberated from colonial rule. Inequalities in caste influence every facet of human life: education, marriage and housing. In South Asia, caste discrimination is still a problem, especially in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as Nepal, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nepal, Nepal, and Pakistan. They continue to be stigmatized because of their perceived inferior social and intellectual status and are frequently consigned to the lowest paid segments of society’s labor force. Dalits is the general term that refers to the lowest caste group and is subject to the stigma of being untouchable. Pervasive violence, humiliation and exclusion continue to plague Dalits. The coronavirus pandemic has only amplified the practice of ‘untouchability’ through the segregating and shunning of stigmatized groups.
South Asian diaspora communities also live with the ugly reality of discrimination and caste inequalities. Recent lawsuits in the U.S. have revealed the widespread effects of caste dynamics that extend far beyond South Asia.
Cisco Systems was the subject of the first lawsuit filed against it in June 2020. California Department for Fair Employment and Housing filed the lawsuit. The suit alleges the company did not address discrimination against a Dalit employee by two supervisors of more privileged backgrounds.
Second was in May 2021 filed against BAPS, a Hindu trust that is now a non-profit and has held the status of an 501 (c.(3)). Lawyers representing Dalits claimed that they were forced to work as laborers on an underpaid Hindu temple construction site in New Jersey under the R1 visa. Both lawsuits reveal practices of caste discrimination and exploitation within America’s racially stratified workforce.
These cases reflect long-standing U.S. immigration trends. While the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act authorized professional class migration, including doctors and engineers from around the globe, it also attempted to remove racial prejudices that were engendered by previous immigration laws. 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. This has allowed them to make use of their caste privilege to immigrate to India and have succeeded professionally.
Because of their highly select nature, professional South Asian Americans have been subject to discrimination and caste bias in the hiring process and promotions. Particularly in the U.S. tech sector where there is significant privilege caste representation, this situation can be very problematic. The Cisco case, which was the first publicized in this way, isn’t unusual. After the case was filed, many Dalit workers in tech have spoken out to reveal that there is a widespread caste bias at work. Many feel forced to hide their caste identity and pretend not to be Dalits in order for them work with others from more privileged classes. This makes them feel like these places are a dangerous place where people from less privileged groups might ask about their pasts. A mistake can result in stigma and exposure. This group of workers clearly prefers non-South Asian supervisors who are more aware of their caste and can ensure fair treatment. Although these testimonies can be a useful starting point in understanding how oppressed castes are treated at work, further data is required on demographics to determine the full extent of this problem.
These cases highlight the necessity of adding caste into the federally protected categories. Legal recognition of caste in the protected categories will help to de-stigmatize casting identification, and make it easier for vulnerable caste groups not to feel intimidated when they reveal their identity. 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.
Some South Asian Americans argue that legalizing caste discrimination in America would harm South Asians. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) is one of the leading groups to oppose adding the caste category to the U.S. Anti-Discrimination Law. 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.
However, caste is more than a stereotype in South Asian societies. Caste is a living reality that encourages inequality in access to resources, life chances, and human flourishing. It is important to not confuse caste with ethnicity, nationality or religion. Scholars and human rights reports have shown that there is caste in South Asia across all ethnicities and nationalities. Santa Clara Hearing testimony also supported this truth by attesting that casteism exists among South Asian Christians and Muslims as well as Hindus. 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. Protecting oppressed castes won’t make Hindus, Indians and South Asians scapegoats. Recognizing the reality of caste discrimination, as well as any accountability or justice actions that may follow, would increase the commitment for equal rights, dignity, and inclusion.
Supporters of declaring caste to be protected also claim that this would cause South Asian Americans, as well as their children, to view themselves through the lens of caste identity. For example, many people opposed to the Santa Clara plan testified at the hearing that they do not identify themselves as being from any particular caste. In the United States, some members of privileged castes may insist they don’t believe in or view caste. Many may think that castinge would give them an identity, which they are not entitled to. Casteblindness doesn’t erase disadvantage or privilege racially, just like race blindness doesn’t erase disadvantage or privilege racially. In fact, being caste-blind itself is an act of privilege. According to Dalit testimony, the oppressed castes don’t have the privilege of castinge blindness.
It is not possible to mix race and caste. There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between experiences of the U.S.’s racial minorities as well as those of the oppressed groups. South Asian American community members rightly point out the long history and discrimination that they experienced in the U.S. However, people from privileged backgrounds resist admitting the ugliness caused by caste discrimination.
It is unfortunately this history of racial disparity that is currently being used against protections to oppressed castinges. HAF also claims that castinge as a protected class would encourage 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. Castees were a source of power differences that predated colonialism, and they did not disappear with the advent of democracy. As noted in a recent scholarly article, caste has long been “a total social fact” in South Asian societies. Indian constitution recognizes caste inequalities and has passed various laws to correct them. BAPS and Cisco lawsuits show that South Asians have brought discrimination and caste inequalities to the United States. Are there any different rules because South Asians constitute 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. HAF lobbied the U.S. Congress to support Indian Government positions regarding the State of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the Citizenship Amendment Act (a discriminatory law that targets Muslims) following the 2014 election of Narendra Modi.
However, caste protections and criticism of Hindutva are not anti-Hindu. Hindutva, an authoritarian political ideology, aims to transform India from a secular democracy into a Hindu majority country. Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities will be relegated second-class citizens. The current Hindu nationalist government of India has seen a dramatic rise in caste and religious violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, as well as widespread arrests and detentions for dissenters. HAF, South Asian American groups are engaging in double-speak. This is because they use religious and ethnic minority protections in America to defend majoritarianisms in India.
People who are against making caste a protected group distract from the urgent problem of American caste. They have made anti-discrimination protections that oppressed castes can be twisted into religious and racial discrimination. While this defense of minorities rights may seem progressive, we need to recognize that it is a defense for caste privilege and its beneficiaries in diasporic South Asians. Occupied castes in America must be recognized and protected as they are a minority within a majority.