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What is caste discrimination, and why does it need to be banned in the US?

India's ancient discriminatory caste system could be making an impact in the U.S., and now some areas are banning the practice.
What is caste discrimination, and why does it need to be banned in US?
Posted at 9:16 PM, Apr 12, 2023

In recent weeks, there have been efforts to outlaw what's known as "caste discrimination" in the U.S.

Seattle became the first city to ban caste discrimination in February. Now California may add caste as a protected category to its state law, becoming the first state to make discrimination based on caste explicitly illegal.

What exactly is this caste system?

Purnima Dhavan, a history professor at the University of Washington who specializes in the social and cultural history of early modern south Asia, can help explain the complex caste system.

"The simplest way to explain it is that it is an inherited system of privilege that is based on prescriptions laid down by the group that's at the very top end of this particular hierarchical system," Dhavan said.

The main concept comes from an ancient Indian religious text called the Rigveda, which says the origin of all life began with a Purusha, or "supreme being." From this supreme being, others were born into four categories, referred to as "varnas," which came from different parts of this supreme being's body, starting with the head.

"At the very top end of this particular hierarchical system [are] Brahmins, who were traditionally educators, priests, rich world specialists," Dhavan said. 

After the head are the shoulders.

"The next step up are Kshatriyas, who are traditionally belonging to this warrior. Soldiers or often kings and rulers or village chiefs would come from that particular strata."

Next up in the hierarchical system: the thighs. This includes people engaged in trade, or merchants.

Lastly are the feet.

"The next down are peasants, people who do manual labor," Dhavan said. "These were called shudras in the Sanskrit texts and then beyond. These are groups that are considered to have occupations that are considered ritually polluting by the upper castes, the top three in the hierarchy, and therefore social interactions with them were often proscribed."

Discrimination within the caste system

Because these different castes are hierarchical, there's also been a history of discrimination between castes that's tied to social status and the concept of purity.

"The idea is that the system itself depends on a sort of separation... it's fundamentally a hierarchical system," said Ananya Chakravarti, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University. "It's a form of social hierarchy which has elements of — in the past, especially of heredity — specialization."

Caste is an oppressive system just like racism, but it's important not to conflate the two. While a person's race can be visually obvious, casteism relies on complex signifiers like family occupation, last name, location of residence and even dietary habits.

The so called "upper castes" historically got the better jobs and were usually vegetarian, which was considered a ritually pure diet. The so-called "lower castes" were relegated to menial and often dehumanizing labor. They were poor and often ate a diet of readily available meat. That's why they were often thought of as impure or dirty.

Because of this association with impurity, many of the Shudras were considered "untouchables." Other "upper" caste members would avoid socializing, touching or sharing items with people belonging to this caste, who are often called "Dalits."

"What is fundamental is that we have to remember that these were communities that were exploited for labor," Chakravarti said. "So untouchability is at least one of the ways that we must understand that these were communities from which labor was extracted on a communal basis often, and that exploitation was then, in some ways, justified on the grounds of their ritual status."

Experts told Scripps News that discrimination against "lower castes" in the U.S. manifests in ways like housing discrimination and fewer job opportunities for "lower castes," especially in fields that have a significant south Asian workforce, like among tech workers in Silicon Valley.

South Asians represent the fastest growing group of Asian Americans and make up just over 1% of Americans overall, per an analysis of census data. That might sound like a small percentage, but the community can be rather insular, which compounds the problem of caste discrimination. On top of that, this issue isn't limited to the South Asian community.

"It's not uncommon, for example, for tech workers of other ethnicities to start to imbibe these kinds of prejudices themselves, especially if they have experience working in India," Chakravarti said.

A 2018 survey by Equity Labs, a civil rights group, found two in three Dalit workers reported being treated unfairly in their U.S. workplaces.

Just last year, a former Cisco employee, whose name remains undisclosed, filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the company, alleging his supervisors at the tech giant's San Jose, California, headquarters excluded him from important meetings and passed on him for promotions due to his "Dalit" caste.

Because this is a religious system of hierarchy, bias often shows up in cultural practices and norms. Many South Asian communities also choose to only socialize with members of their own caste, and marriages tend to remain within caste systems, too.

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The issue has also increased as more South Asians immigrate to this country.

Back in 2021, BAPS, a prominent Hindu sect that runs several temples across America, faced accusations of luring hundreds of lower caste laborers from India to build temples near Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and in Robbinsville, New Jersey. These builders reportedly worked grueling hours and made menial pay — just about $450 a month.

And that's not the first time this issue of caste or caste discrimination came up during the process of immigration.

Back in 1923, an Indian immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind categorized himself as a "high caste Hindu" and argued his high-caste status meant he should be counted as a "white person" and naturalized as a citizen. The Supreme Court disagreed, and noted that Thind's argument and underlying theories about "high caste" had been "discredited by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology."

The Supreme Court still had its own work to do when it came to ethnology and social justice back then. For example, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated America's schools, didn't come until the 1950s. But the fact that Thind's case reached the highest court in the land shows how this issue of caste has been deeply prevalent in the South Asian community in America.

In some extreme cases, people of higher castes literally see those of lower castes as less than human. And that can lead to horrific exploitation.

Lakireddy Bali Reddy was a prominent Indian landlord in San Francisco in the late 80s and 90s. He owned more than 1,000 rental properties and was reportedly one of the richest property owners in the city.

But Reddy was convicted of sexually abusing nearly 25 women and girls from India between 1986 and 2001. These were women from poor, low-caste families who were trafficked to the U.S. on fraudulent visas. In addition to the abuse, many were forced to work at Reddy's properties for little or no pay. Reddy ultimately spent eight years in federal prison and had to register as a sex offender in California.

These cases highlight how caste, social stigma around caste and exploitation can still prevail.

Where the caste system is today

Caste systems can be found among Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs — and other communities from South Asia as well.

Latest estimates suggest about 25% of India's 1.3 billion population are grouped under the country's legal category known as scheduled caste, including the Dalit community. Similarly oppressed are members of a scheduled tribe, or Adivasi group. These are India's indigenous tribes. Both these groups have faced the brunt of caste discrimination.

"Once you are born into that particular caste, you are never going to leave it," Dhavan said. "It is not possible to actually change your caste no matter how much education you have or if your income levels change, so the discrimination that is part of this system has existed for many centuries."

The caste system evolved over millennia, as the Indian subcontinent was led by different rulers, but was officially outlawed in 1948 — a year after India's independence from Britain.

Experts familiar with South Asia say the practice is still alive and prevalent in parts of the country.

"In 2023, we still have people who, from these supposedly low castes, who are sent down in India to do manual scavenging in and literally go down sewer holes and things," Chakravarti said. "So that's an example of the continued kind of occupational specialization that still operates and is somehow sort of legitimized by recourse to this ideology."

"We have ample evidence from social scientists and political tourists who have studied the system that discrimination, violence is still ongoing and often of a serious enough nature that the government has continued to retain several protective legal categories that protect not just the scheduled castes and tribes, but also other groups," Dhavan said.

Irrespective of its roots, caste can and has followed south Asian communities abroad, like here in the U.S.

Legislation surrounding the caste system

Legislation trying to stop caste discrimination here in the U.S. has received some backlash. Groups like the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America oppose the latest moves, arguing they are Hindu-phobic and claiming they perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the Hindu community that came about during colonial rule in India.

But experts Scripps News spoke to don't support that argument. Remember, the caste system predates the colonization of India, and the Hindu-majority country itself legislates around the issue of caste.

"When the Indian constitution was put in place, nobody argued that it was Hindu-phobic or Hindumisia," Dhavan said. "I mean, think about what you're saying here: You are saying it is not possible to be a practicing Hindu without discriminating on that basis. That's a bit odd."

Other groups, like Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity, support the legislation.

Because of the caste system's carryover here in the U.S., experts say the latest legislation and more awareness around the issue of caste and discrimination is much needed.

"I think it's an important advancement in the march of U.S. civil rights to explicitly recognize and prohibit this form of discrimination, which has so far sort of gone under the radar," Chakravarti said.

"Similarly, in an educational setting, we always have an eye to thinking about not just how to enforce protections, but also to create awareness and empathy," Dhavan said. "And I think that is part of the job that educators need to do in this country, particularly for those of us who are specialists in this field."

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