Equality Labs is proud to release our report Caste in the United States. This report came out of a community driven survey conducted in 2016 and has now emerged as a crucial document that both presents the first evidence of Caste discrimination in the US and helps to map the internal hegemonies within our communities. It also provides insight into how the South Asian community balances the experiences of living under white supremacy while replicating Caste, anti-Dalitness, and anti-Blackness.
As the South Asian American community, we are uniquely situated to redeem the errors of history as well as set the tone for a progressive conversation around Caste, both here and in countries of origin. This is an opportunity we must not squander.
We hope that the data in this report tells the stories we haven’t always heard in our communities and inspires intentional efforts to create spaces that reject harmful and discriminatory ideologies. Instead, we hope this report opens new opportunities for dialogue, accountability, and most of all justice in all of our communities.
What is Caste?
Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world. It is a system of religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture. At birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, which determines social status and assigns “spiritual purity”.
Hindu origin myths state that different people were created from different parts of God Brahma’s body and were to be ranked hierarchically according to ritual status, purity, and occupation.
There are four main Caste groups. Those at the very top are Brahmins, who have traditionally been priests, scriptural knowledge-keepers, and legislators. Below them in status are the Kshatriyas, who were kings and warriors. They are followed by Vaishyas, or the merchant classes. People in these three Caste groups are often referred to as the “upper” Castes or Savarnas. Those at the bottom of the Caste hierarchy are Shudras or traditional peasants. Many of the lowest ranking Shudras are also termed Caste-oppressed.
Outside the 4-Caste group structure are people considered lower than the lowest of Castes. They go by the term Dalit meaning “broken but resilient”, formerly known as “untouchables” and the Adivasis, or the indigenous peoples of South Asia.Together these Caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices including socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and experience brutal violence at the hands of the “upper” Castes.
Dalits under Caste apartheid are forced into segregated schools, villages, places of worship, and subject to violent oppression. Often they are denied access to public amenities including water and roads. This entire system is enforced by violence and maintained by one of the oldest, most persistent cultures of impunity throughout South Asia, most notably in India, where despite the contemporary illegality of the system, it has persisted and thrived for 2,500 years.
Wherever South Asians Go They Take Caste with Them
Caste is not limited to the Subcontinent, caste has been found where ever South Asian migrants go. In the United States many caste-oppressed migrant communities who come from caste and religious backgrounds impacted by caste discrimination are finding that caste has replicated itself in in South Asian community, religious, and business institutions. This has led many shocking experiences of caste discrimination in the united states that includes physical assault, verbal slurs, and discrimination in schools, businesses, and work places.
Our survey provides some of the first quantitative and qualitative data on this problem and we hope will open crucial conversations to protect the rights and dignity of caste-oppressed migrants.
How Does Caste compare with class, gender, and race?
Caste like race is a social category created in order to exploit a particular group of people. While it shares characteristics that are analagous to class and racial systems of oppression it is quite distinct because of its religious origins and the connections it makes between purity, profession, and skin color. As a result when trying to understand how caste may impact one’s experience of classism or even colourism, we recommend the application of intersectionality as a way to understand how caste, class, gender, and race can be overlapping, interconnected but still distinct systems of oppression.
For example, a Dalit could become wealthy and still be limited in social circles because of how they are , however they perceived through the specific lens and rituals of their Caste location. For example a rich Dalit may still not be welcome to marry an upper-Caste partner. They will still be barred from chanting religious versus, they cannot become priests, and may still be treated poorly despite their ability to break class barriers.
People are of different Castes are not necessarily racially variant and Caste differences persist even if you move to a different class. For example, a “low” Caste person could become wealthy, however they will still be treated with and perceived through the specific lens and rituals of their Caste location. For a deeper understanding of Caste as a social structure, look under the further reading section.
Our survey revealed that one in three Dalit students were discriminated against during their education. K-12 Schools are often places where young South Asians navigate complex identities during formative periods of their lives. Within a principally Eurocentric school curriculum, many teachers are not aware of the nuances and roots of Caste and religion in South Asian society. We recommend that in addition to educators understanding racial dynamics, they also familiarize themselves with Caste and its implications for their students.
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
College is a tough place for most people. Doubly so for international students. Given the large population of South Asian students in American universities, Caste-based jokes and slurs are not uncommon. One respondent says, “I clearly remember my classmates who were upper Caste openly asking me my Caste and then feeling proud to say “I can’t even think of dating you because you are from a lower Caste!””
We recommend that disciplinary committee and international student services s in colleges and universities sensitize themselves to the issue of Caste. Anti-hazing, bullying, discrimination policies for students and staff must be updated to specifically mention Caste in order to adequately reflect the reality of lived experiences on campuses and act as a deterrent to Caste discrimination in their .
Historically, Caste has dictated access to professional opportunity and continues to do so in parts of South Asia where people considered “lower” caste are still forced into lesser, often degrading work. While this is not the case in the United States, people still face Caste-based discrimination at their workplace.
As the number of South Asians in the workforce grows, it is crucial for all government, corporate, and non-profits, specifically those that employ or work with a large number of South Asians, like the tech industry, develop an understanding of Caste.
It is crucial that sensitivity towards Caste be part of the cultural competencies required for interacting with this community. This includes knowing and being vocal about the existence of Caste and working to prioritize the visibility of Caste-oppressed communities in programs.
We recommend that as part of their diversity workshops, Human Resource departments get training that helps address the level of Caste discrimination in American workplaces where South Asians are present.
To a large part of the South Asian community, religious institutions are safe spaces for socializing with members of the community and developing a sense of belonging in a foreign country. However, not everybody feels welcome. “We are a group of Chamar (Dalit) friends and when some of us Chamars tried to get leadership in our gurdwaras, we were jumped in the parking lot by a Jatt gang with knives,” says a respondent, of an incident that occured last year.
We strongly recommend the setting up of infrastructure for the reporting and management of Caste-based discrimination cases within our religious institutions. Our missions, boards, ceremonial, charitable, and values processes must explicitly remind that Caste-based discrimination will not be tolerated.
SOUTH ASIAN PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZATIONS
The fight to end Caste-based discrimination is part of the journey towards equality and respect for all our communities. The most important recommendation we can make for South Asian organizations is to ensure that organization vision and/or mission statements mention Caste explicitly, so that every progressive South Asian American community remains committed to the idea that we must fight both white supremacy and Caste apartheid. The erasure of Caste is no longer an option for anyone in our movements.
Aniruddha Dutta, Assistant Professor, Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Iowa
Chinniah Jangam, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University, Canada
Davinder Prasad, General Secretary, British Organisation for People of Asian Origin
Esther Parajuli, Ph. D. Candidate, Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary
Reverend Doctor Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar, Doctor of Theology, Union Theological Seminary
Gowri Vijayakumar, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Brandeis University
Huma Dar, Ph. D. Candidate, South and South East Asian studies, University of California, Berkeley
Jinee Lokaneeta, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.
John Boopalan, Post-Doctoral fellow at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA
Ketaki Deshpande. PhD student Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. University of Arkansas
Kripanand Komanapalli, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Religion, Columbia University
Mark Lewis Taylor, Ph.D., Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary
Mohammed Hussain Abdul Jabbar, M.S, Ph.D, Research Scientist, University of Maryland
Nishant Upadhyay, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
Pallavi Rao, Ph. D. candidate, The Media School, Indiana University, Bloomington
Pampi, Culture Worker, Divine Company
Sangeetha Ravichandran, Associate Director, Arab American Cultural Center, University of Illinois at Chicago(UIC) and Research Assistant at Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy
Sangay Mishra, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Drew University
Sonia J. Cheruvilil, M.P.H. Adjunct Lecturer and Ph. D. candidate, School of Public Health, City University of New York
Urmitapa Dutta, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell