WHAT IS CASTE?
Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world. At birth, every child inherits their ancestors’ caste, which determines social status and assigns “spiritual purity”. Within the caste system, one’s caste is unalterable throughout one’s life, and determines access to resources and opportunities.
The most marginalized by caste are those that fall outside the caste structure: Dalits (meaning “broken but resilient”, formerly known as “untouchables”) and Adivasis (the indigenous peoples of South Asia). These caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices, including socioeconomic inequality, disparity of land rights, and brutal violence at the hands of the “upper” castes. Dalits under caste apartheid are forced into segregated schools, villages, and places of worship. Often, they are denied the right to access public amenities, including water sources 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, the practice of caste has persisted and thrived for 2,500 years.
CASTE IN THE UNITED STATES
In 2016, Equality Labs conducted a national survey on caste discrimination in the United States, becoming the first data set documenting caste in American institutions. The results of the 2016 survey found that all of the inequalities associated with caste status, ritual purity, and social exclusion have become embedded within all of the major South Asian American institutions. Further, they extend into American mainstream institutions that have significant South Asian immigrant populations. This includes schools, workplaces, places of business, and religious institutions.
In 2021, the Indian American Attitudes Survey, a collaboration between Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and the University of Pennsylvania, published further data that confirmed the prevalence of caste in the United States. The survey found that roughly half of all Hindu Indian American respondents identified with caste, with more than 8 in 10 of those self-identifying as caste-privileged.
These statistics of caste discrimination here in the United States have also made international headlines, with some of the most recent cases being the Cisco lawsuit and the BAPS investigation. In 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems after an employee from a caste-oppressed, specifically Dalit, background reported caste discrimination 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, all while 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.
CASTE IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Colleges and universities are one of the largest sites facing casteism in the United States today. Faculty, students, and staff have reported a wide range of discrimination – from social exclusion, housing discrimination, to verbal and even physical assault. Prominent institutions like Harvard University, Stanford, University of California Davis, University of Chicago, and University of Pennsylvania are only a sampling of the prestigious universities grappling with these issues.
In response to the crisis of caste discrimination, many colleges and universities across the United States have begun the process of adding caste as a protected category to ensure equity on their campuses. University of California Davis, Brandeis University, Colby College, California State University, and Carleton University have all been successful in adding language around caste to relevant mission statements and anti-discrimination policies.
As Universities around the United States have started to move to protect its caste-oppressed stakeholders, this conference offers recommendations as well as complementary resources to provide higher education institutions a foundation from which to further build and develop more comprehensive strategies focused on preventing and remedying caste-based discrimination, violence, and harm in higher education institutions and proactively supporting the success of caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty.