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Caste in the US: Lawmakers try to tackle discrimination

April 23, 2023

California lawmakers have introduced legislation addressing caste, following Seattle's lead. But why is the ancient South Asian hierarchical system important in US politics?

A group of people holding signs in their hands
Senator Aisha Wahab (center) has been pushing hard to address the caste issueImage: Ruscal Cayangyang

"Like everyone else, I was approaching the table with plates and cutlery in hand. But when my turn to take food came, the host said, 'Prem, can you stop? I will bring the food for you.' I just obeyed. That's fine, I will not pollute your food."

Nepalese-born social worker Prem Pariyar recalls the first time he was reminded of his caste in Bay Area, California. The socioeconomic hierarchical system of caste, dating back thousands of years, includes rules of purity and pollution originating in South Asia.

These rules determine certain groups as "untouchables," who find themselves on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy. They, along with people outside of the caste hierarchy, are known as "Dalits." Food is one of the markers of caste purity, and, according to those rules, Dalits "pollute" the food that they touch, rendering it inedible for non-Dalits. This is what Pariyar experienced in 2015 in California when he moved to the US.

A man standing in a garden
Prem Pariyar has experienced firsthand caste discrimination in CaliforniaImage: Privat

Pariyar supports Democratic Senator Aisha Wahab, who is trying to ban caste-based discrimination in the state of California. In March, Wahab introduced a bill, which if turned into law, would make California the first American state to recognize caste as a category for protection, alongside sex, ancestry, religion, and gender. The Senate is due to hear the bill on April 25.

Caste in the US: How big is it?

Seattle and California are tech hubs, where many South Asians work in the big tech companies. One of these, CISCO, has been involved in a lawsuit where an employee accused two of his supervisors of discriminating based on caste. This lawsuit sparked a discussion on caste experiences in the US and was highlighted by activist group Equality Labs.

In 2018, Equality Labs published a study on caste in the United States. The results of the survey with 1,500 participants concluded that 60% of Dalits reported experiencing caste-based derogatory jokes or comments

In another study, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found in 2021 that "roughly half of all Hindu Indian Americans" identify with a caste group. The study notes that "many Indian immigrants might have brought with them identities rooted in their ancestral homeland, while others have eschewed them in favor of a non-hyphenated 'American' identity. [But] this has not inoculated them from the forces of discrimination, polarization, and contestation over questions of belonging and identity." 

The diaspora caste experience

The introduction of this bill — following the recognition of caste as a protected category by the Seattle City Council in February — has generated mixed responses.

Samir Kalra, a second generation Indian American, is the Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation. His experience as an Indian in the US is very different from Prem's. He, and others he's talked to, "haven't seen or experienced" caste. "And that includes people that are coming from traditionally marginalized communities in India. They say that they haven't experienced any issues in the workplace. They don't want to be talking about their identity all the time because they came to America to get away from all of that," Kalra says.

When Prem Pariyar spoke to one of his colleagues, also a Dalit, his colleague said, "Prem ji, you are new. I am here for the last 10 years. I faced this multiple times."

Both Pariyar and Kalra aren't exceptions, but represent two diametrical experiences of caste, which doesn't surprise Tulasi Srinivas, professor of anthropology, religion and transnational studies at the Emerson College and a fellow at the Harvard Divinity School.

"When people say they are not discriminated against, I think that's evidence that they are at the top of the heap. Western-educated, secular Hindus are ashamed of caste. They are ashamed of the discrimination, which I'm sympathetic to. But on the other hand, the Hindu reform movements have been terrible for people of the oppressed castes because they have denied [for] decades, if not centuries, discrimination against [Dalits] and it has articulated a liberal, dominant-caste-led version of Hinduism."

Srinivas sees it as an endemic part of Hindu culture,"and so, we carry it with us. And in this new space, America, where we're experimenting in a laboratory of equality, we come to see these uncomfortable parts of ourselves as a culture," she says.

A group of people gathered in a building holding up signs
Will California follow Seattle's lead in recognizing caste as a protected categoryImage: Ruscal Cayangyang

Including caste in American vocab: what will it change?

Pariyar feels educating the American system on caste is the first step and for him, this bill means protection.

Protection is the "biggest impact" of the bill, acknowledges Wahab. "This will make people feel that they have a shot. And if they feel that there's a discrimination effort or something going against them, they have the resource and the recourse. To be able to say, 'this is not allowed. And this is why I'm protected under the Constitution,'" she says.

As more and more states become increasingly diverse, this bill could push others into adopting caste in their official language, says Wahab. "They say when California leads, others follow. And I do believe that that will be the case."

Opponents of the bill vouch for existing US law, which refers to discrimination based on ancestry. This, they feel, is adequate to interpret as caste discrimination. Samir Kalra and his organization feel apprehensive about a specific anti-caste law and its corollary implications.

"People are scared of what the implications of this [will be] on second, third generation kids. And as a community, we're already facing many challenges along with other communities of hate crimes — Hinduphobia, just anti-immigrant sentiments. Are [South Asians], as a community, going to be profiled? Are employers going to be making hiring decisions now because they think Indian Americans or South Asian Americans automatically discriminate based on caste?," he says.

Caste's impact has not yet been fully gauged in India, where it originates, says Srinivas. So, for her, it is understandable that it is an even harder task in the US. But that shouldn't stop American courts and institutions from legislating on caste.

"One could argue that the United States has not come to terms with race or gender and yet, there is policy about discrimination on the basis of race and gender. One does not have to know the depth and breadth of a problem. If even one person is being discriminated against unfairly, that is evidence of a problem," says Srinivas.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination