What is Caste?
Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world. As one of the oldest systems of oppression in the world, the caste system is a structure of graded inequality based on notions of purity and pollution. Caste is determined at birth and affects all aspects of life, including your right to human dignity, where you can worship, where you can live, who you can marry, and your prospects for educational and career advancement. To this day, caste-oppressed peoples continue to experience profound injustices including socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and brutal violence at the hands of the dominating castes.
Caste is prevalent in various faith communities across South Asia, and also transgresses regional and national boundaries to be found globally across communities that are part of the diaspora. Similar (yet distinct) forms of caste systems also exist in various non-South Asian communities, with some examples being the caste system in Japan that marks the Burakumin caste as untouchable by birth and the racially determined casta system across Latin America.
In the US, caste impacts over 5.5 million South Asians and has infiltrated a broad range of spaces and industries from education spaces to the tech sector to religious centers. According to the 2016 survey “Caste in the United States” produced by Equality Labs, 25% of Dalits reported facing verbal or physical assault based on their caste in the US, two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace in the US, 60% of Dalits report experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments in the US, and 20% of Dalit respondents report feeling discriminated at a place of business because of their caste.
Universities in the US are no exception. Caste-oppressed students and faculty are subjected to discrimination, bullying, and humiliation. According to the preliminary findings of the 2022 Caste in Higher Education Survey administered by the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity (NACCE) and Equality Labs, 4 in 5 caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty reported experiencing caste-discrimination at the hands of their dominant caste peers. Further, 75% of them did not report caste-based discrimination in their universities or colleges because caste was not added as a protected category and/or their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments lacked caste competency due to a lack of provisions and training. Given the prevalence of caste discrimination, leading universities and colleges across the US have amended their anti-discrimination policy to add caste as a protected category, including Colby College, Brown University, Brandeis University, and, most notably, the California State University system in 2022. Recently, Seattle also amended its anti-discrimination policy and became the first city in the nation to ban caste discrimination.
Caste discrimination in the United States has also made international headlines, with some of the most recent cases being Cisco and BAPS. In 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems, Inc. after one of their employees from Dalit background reported having been discriminated against because of his caste by some of his dominant caste supervisors and colleagues. Following this lawsuit going public, hundreds of other caste oppressed people came forward about their similar experiences with caste-based discrimination all over American institutions. These international headlines were followed up again in 2021 after a well-known Hindu sect--BAPS--was raided by the FBI for trafficking caste-oppressed workers from India to work on building Hindu temples near Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Robbinsville, New Jersey, with wages as low as $450 a month. Specifically, in regards to the lawsuit against BAPS in New Jersey, caste-oppressed workers reported being forced to work seven days a week to build and maintain the Hindu temple there for just $1.20 an hour, facing constant casteist slurs. These two international headlines are just a few of the countless cases--some publicized and many invisibilized--of ongoing caste-based discrimination lurking in U.S. institutions without adequate accountability.