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It’s Time to Dismantle Caste in the U.S.
The filing of a historic lawsuit by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against the global technology conglomerate Cisco sent shockwaves through the United States and the global South Asian community. The discrimination suit, filed in June, marks the first time in U.S. history that any institution is being held accountable on the issue of caste discrimination. With roots in India, caste is a systematic structure of oppression and social hierarchy transplanted to the United States. Anti-caste organizers like myself have been working to end caste oppression around the world for decades. We endeavor to heal ourselves and our families through international solidarity with other oppressed people, as we work to dismantle caste apartheid collectively.
Caste negatively affects more than 260 million people worldwide, crippling their quality of life. This exclusionary system ranks people into five castes that are based on spiritual purity and their deeds in past lives. For anyone born into a culture where caste is rampant, it determines who and where they worship, choices and advancement in education and career, even personal relationships—in essence their entire lives. Brahmins, who created this system in Hindu scripture, are at the top of the caste system and have benefited from centuries of privilege, access, and power because of it. Dalits, who sit at the bottom of this hierarchy, are branded “untouchable” and sentenced to a violent system of caste apartheid with separate neighborhoods, places of worship, and schools. While caste-based discrimination in the United States is not as widespread and overt as it is in India, it exists here too.
This is why the Cisco case is so significant.
The Dalit complainant, “John Doe,” at the heart of the case was expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace where he held the lowest status within the team and, as a result, received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment because of his caste. Doe endured insults, demotions, and isolation. In addition, the Cisco HR department was not willing to admit they lacked the competency in caste to address their casteist hostile workplace. The California department of fair employment and housing did not have to be experts in caste to see Doe’s civil rights were being violated.
Our communities are fighting for caste to be added as a protected category in discrimination all across the United States.
The Cisco case is the tip of the iceberg of how deep caste discrimination is rooted in South Asian American institutions. While we are not in the same violent conditions of caste, as in our homelands where dominant castes control all the institutions of power, we recognize a troubling reorganizing of caste in every aspect of American life. Affecting such diverse issues as immigration, labor, housing, domestic violence, education, personal relationships, and national politics. Our communities are fighting for caste to be added as a protected category in discrimination all across the United States.
With U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as the presumptive vice presidential nominee, there is opportunity to raise this issue on a much higher platform. Harris is of the Brahmin caste and represents the state where this case was filed. Given how powerfully she asked Biden to be accountable to his past on busing, Dalits in the U.S. are also asking Harris to make a statement about caste, admit her own caste privilege, and to make way for the many caste oppressed people who need legal redress now.
Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, affirms the significance of caste as a foundation for understanding inequity and helps create a foundation for Americans to better understand race through the older system of caste. As Wilkerson explains, “Caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place in that.”
Race and caste are not the same system, but they are parallel oppressions that have the same logic. The resulting structural violence has led to millions of Black people and Dalits to organize for their freedom. The uprisings this summer have laid bare the racial inequity and injustice in the United States while also inspiring Dalit Americans to stand up in unprecedented numbers to defend Black lives while also courageously speaking out all across the country to challenge caste in both our homelands and the diaspora.
Race and caste are not the same system, but they are parallel oppressions that have the same logic.
Many Americans don’t know the scope and the scale of the problem, so our team decided to dig into our stories through community based research.
After key mentorship from scholars such as political activist and Harvard professor Cornel West, my colleague Maari Zwick-Maitreyi and I helmed the first U.S. survey on caste discrimination in 2018 for our organization Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization that works on empowering Dalits and caste-oppressed individuals on the issues of caste, gender, and religious intolerance. The survey results, compiled into the report Caste in the United States, confirm what many caste-oppressed Americans have known and experienced for years: Casteism exists here, too.
Our 2018 survey, which resulted in responses from 1500 participants across the U.S., found that 1 in 4 Dalits have faced physical and verbal assault right here in the U.S. This includes casteist slurs, fist fights, and even knife and gun violence.
Priya, one of our Dalit leaders, recently shared, “I hate how I feel when I am around dominant caste people. I am waiting for the attack. I don’t know when it will come, but most dominant caste folks are ignorant and use caste slurs casually. They don’t know any better, but that doesn’t mean I have to be around it. My family has survived caste atrocity back at home, and I will be damned if I have to deal with it again here. I need to protect myself because each time I hear their words about my people, I die a little. And I can’t live like that anymore.”
We also found that 2 of 3 Dalits have experienced workplace discrimination in both white-collar and blue-collar work environments. Whether on an assembly line or in a corporate C-suite, caste-hostile workplaces flourish in companies lacking competency in caste. One worker in California shared, “The managers and other workers found out I was Dalit and they used to call me by a slur. They would trip me up in my tasks and report me to my manager—who was also a dominant caste. I considered reporting it to HR but what would they do; they can barely find India on the map, do you think they would understand caste?”
Dalit Americans are united in the desire to do more than tell our stories.
Our experience has been that dominant caste people openly boast about their caste privilege and supposed biological superiority, which makes Dalits hide our identities and stay silent in the workplace. Casteist supervisors also create climates of fear where if discovered, we face demotions, harassment, and even termination or the loss of our employment-based H-1B visas. This issue continues to be a problem because for weeks after the Cisco lawsuit was announced our team received complaints from more than 250 Dalits from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and dozens of tech companies to report discrimination, bullying, ostracizing, and even sexual harassment by colleagues who are dominant caste Indians. This includes 33 complaints from Dalit employees at Facebook, 20 complaints at Google, 18 at Microsoft, 24 more at Cisco, and 14 at Amazon. Complaints were also recorded from employees at Twitter, Dell, Netflix, Apple, Uber, and Lyft—as well as dozens more from a range of smaller tech companies.
Our survey also found that 1 of 3 Dalits faced discrimination in educational institutions. Caste-oppressed students who have accepted opportunities offered by India’s affirmative action programs (meant to redress centuries of historical wrongs committed against caste-oppressed and Indigenous South Asians) face a special stigma. On American campuses, caste is used to shame, disregard, and exclude students from campus life and prevent their professional advancement. Many hide their identity because they do not want their competency to be questioned—especially within alumni networks dominated by the privileged castes.
Suresh, another Dalit leader, shared, “I went to school in the U.S. There was a Brahmin student who was sharing with people how pure he was and that he was glad to have left India where he could escape Dalit scum. I fought back. I told him by every measure I was a better student and that he should stop being a caste monster. The fight isolated me from other Indian students, which was fine. I just knew that I had to speak up no matter the cost. Because if I stayed silent, the other students would have thought it was OK to bring that bias here.”
Discrimination also prevails in community circles. Dalit families are often shunned by those of the dominant caste and so build relationships outside the South Asian American community or with other caste-oppressed families. We face a double injury: the pain of leaving our homeland and the isolation within the broader Indian American community. A Dalit mother in California explained that “When other mothers see my child, they remark on how light she is despite coming from my community. I despise how they spoke to me and my daughter. I left India to escape this, I do not want my daughter to face their slights and their bigotry. Let the pain end with me. If this means I do not meet with other Indians, so be it.”
This mother’s remarks also open up the issue of colorism as grounded in caste. Many of the slurs and comments about caste-oppressed people reify stereotypes that caste-oppressed people are darker and less attractive. Even though there is diversity in skin tones throughout South Asia, the persistence of this harmful myth and the privileging of light skin have left many Dalits struggling with their self-esteem. Combating colorism, Dalits offer powerful messages of acceptance and community love.
Casteist practices invade romantic relationships. No matter how vehemently people might deny harboring bias, caste is one of the first criteria mentioned when looking for a partner. Caste and love are deeply connected through the process of endogamy, or marriage within a tribe or caste. In this way, caste controls the reproductive function of all genders, and South Asians who cross caste lines for love suffer grievous consequences.
Dalits and other caste-oppressed people often report being rejected by their partners because their families refuse to accept them or even before a possibility of romance can be entertained. One survey respondent shared, “I was disowned by my family because I fell in love with a man from a different caste. My in-laws also disowned us.”
Caste pervades our religious institutions, with more than 40% of Dalits reporting they felt unwelcome in a place of worship. Casteism in our places of worship is the first core wound for many caste-oppressed people, because caste originated in Hindu scripture. As a result, many dominant caste people link Dalits to spiritual defilement as a way to justify discrimination. Caste is now found in all South Asian faiths and in the U.S., there are strong Dalit Buddhist, Ravidassia, Christian, Sikh, and Muslim caste-oppressed people of faith who want to worship with others in peace. Yet our survey found that Dalits were barred entry to dominant caste-led Hindu temples, churches, and gurdwaras. They even faced physical violence. One Dalit shared this painful incident: “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 (dominant caste) gang with knives.”
Dalit Americans are united in the desire to do more than tell our stories.
Caste is not just the story of the consequences we bear as caste-oppressed people; it is also about the networks of dominant caste people who benefit from our exploitation and discrimination. We are resolved to hold those of the dominant caste accountable and to dismantle caste structures in the United States as well as around the world.
A vibrant movement of anti-caste activists, advocates, and organizers are working toward the annihilation of caste in the diaspora and in our homelands. We need to break the silence around this insidious system of oppression and work toward structural solutions that address this problem at the root. We also need South Asian American politicians to speak more openly to caste as the time for them to ignore this rampant problem is over.
Anti-caste activists have rallied around the Cisco case to advocate for the inclusion of caste as a protected class, alongside race and gender. Employers nationwide should be required to develop policies identifying and redressing caste discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs. Human resources and managers must be trained in caste competency so they can better understand the needs of caste-oppressed workers and stop caste discrimination. At present, American institutions are failing their caste-oppressed workers and consumers.
Justice has been denied to our community for far too long.
We ask that all people of conscience break the silence that surrounds this harmful system and learn more about caste apartheid. For those who are in leadership in progressive spaces, reach out to Equality Labs to help build your caste competency and better support your caste-oppressed employees and members. For folks in tech, please take the Caste in Tech survey here.
Finally, we ask everyone to sign the petition and stand with caste-oppressed Americans today. Each of these steps supports the national movement to have caste designated as a protected category in our civil and human rights laws.
Together, we can abolish caste in our lifetime.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit technologist, artist, and activist who is the founder of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization working to empower caste oppressed people in the United States and around the world.