A Survey of Caste in the United States

Equality Labs is proud to release our report Caste in the United States. This report came out of a community driven survey conducted in 2016 and has now emerged as a crucial document that both presents the first evidence of Caste discrimination in the US and helps to map the internal hegemonies within our communities. It also provides insight into how the South Asian community balances the experiences of living under white supremacy while replicating Caste, anti-Dalitness, and anti-Blackness. 

As the South Asian American community, we are uniquely situated to redeem the errors of history as well as set the tone for a progressive conversation around Caste, both here and in countries of origin. This is an opportunity we must not squander. 

We hope that the data in this report tells the stories we haven’t always heard in our communities and inspires intentional efforts to create spaces that reject harmful and discriminatory ideologies. Instead, we hope this report opens new opportunities for dialogue, accountability, and most of all justice in all of our communities.

Key findings

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What is Caste?

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Caste is a structure of oppression that affects over 1 billion people across the world. It is a system of religiously codified exclusion that was established in Hindu scripture. At birth, every child inherits his or her ancestor’s caste, which determines social status and assigns “spiritual purity”.

Hindu origin myths state that different people were created from different parts of God Brahma’s body and were to be ranked hierarchically according to ritual status, purity, and occupation. 

There are four main Caste groups. Those at the very top are Brahmins, who have traditionally been priests, scriptural knowledge-keepers, and legislators. Below them in status are the Kshatriyas, who were kings and warriors. They are followed by Vaishyas, or the merchant classes. People in these three Caste groups are often referred to as the “upper” Castes or Savarnas. Those at the bottom of the Caste hierarchy are Shudras or traditional peasants. Many of the lowest ranking Shudras are also termed Caste-oppressed.

Outside the 4-Caste group structure are people considered lower than the lowest of Castes. They go by the term Dalit meaning “broken but resilient”, formerly known as “untouchables” and the Adivasis, or the indigenous peoples of South Asia.Together these Caste-oppressed groups continue to experience profound injustices including socioeconomic inequalities, usurpation of their land, rights, and experience brutal violence at the hands of the “upper” Castes. 

Dalits under Caste apartheid are forced into segregated schools, villages, places of worship, and subject to violent oppression. Often they are denied access to public amenities including water 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, it has persisted and thrived for 2,500 years.

Wherever South Asians Go They Take Caste with Them

Caste is not limited to the Subcontinent, caste has been found where ever South Asian migrants go. In the United States many caste-oppressed migrant communities who come from caste and religious backgrounds impacted by caste discrimination are finding that caste has replicated itself in in South Asian community, religious, and business institutions. This has led many shocking experiences of caste discrimination in the united states that includes physical assault, verbal slurs, and discrimination in schools, businesses, and work places.

Our survey provides some of the first quantitative and qualitative data on this problem and we hope will open crucial conversations to protect the rights and dignity of caste-oppressed migrants.
 

How Does Caste compare with class, gender, and race?

Caste like race is a social category created in order to exploit a particular group of people. While it shares characteristics that are analagous to class and racial systems of oppression it is quite distinct because of its religious origins and the connections it makes between purity, profession, and skin color. As a result when trying to understand how caste may impact one's experience of classism or even colourism, we recommend the application of intersectionality as a way to understand how caste, class, gender, and race can be overlapping, interconnected but still distinct systems of oppression. 

For example, a Dalit could become wealthy and still be limited in social circles because of how they are , however they perceived through the specific lens and rituals of their Caste location. For example a rich Dalit may still not be welcome to marry an upper-Caste partner. They will still be barred from chanting religious versus, they cannot become priests, and may still be treated poorly despite their ability to break class barriers. 

People are of different Castes are not necessarily racially variant and Caste differences persist even if you move to a different class. For example, a "low" Caste person could become wealthy, however they will still be treated with and perceived through the specific lens and rituals of their Caste location. For a deeper understanding of Caste as a social structure, look under the further reading section.

 
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Recommendations

Schools

Our survey revealed that one in three Dalit students were discriminated against during their education. K-12 Schools are often places where young South Asians navigate complex identities during formative periods of their lives. Within a principally Eurocentric school curriculum, many teachers are not aware of the nuances and roots of Caste and religion in South Asian society. We recommend that in addition to educators understanding racial dynamics, they also familiarize themselves with Caste and its implications for their students.

 

Colleges and Universities

College is a tough place for most people. Doubly so for international students. Given the large population of South Asian students in American universities, Caste-based jokes and slurs are not uncommon. One respondent says, “I clearly remember my classmates who were upper Caste openly asking me my Caste and then feeling proud to say “I can’t even think of dating you because you are from a lower Caste!””

We recommend that disciplinary committee and international student services s in colleges and universities sensitize themselves to the issue of Caste. Anti-hazing, bullying, discrimination policies for students and staff must be updated to specifically mention Caste in order to adequately reflect the reality of lived experiences on campuses and act as a deterrent to Caste discrimination in their .

 

Workplaces

Historically, Caste has dictated access to professional opportunity and continues to do so in parts of South Asia where people considered “lower” caste are still forced into lesser, often degrading work. While this is not the case in the United States, people still face Caste-based discrimination at their workplace.

As the number of South Asians in the workforce grows, it is crucial for all government, corporate, and non-profits, specifically those that employ or work with a large number of South Asians, like the tech industry, develop an understanding of Caste.

It is crucial that sensitivity towards Caste be part of the cultural competencies required for interacting with this community. This includes knowing and being vocal about the existence of Caste and working to prioritize the visibility of Caste-oppressed communities in programs.

We recommend that as part of their diversity workshops, Human Resource departments get training that helps address the level of Caste discrimination in American workplaces where South Asians are present.

 

Religious Institutions

To a large part of the South Asian community, religious institutions are safe spaces for socializing with members of the community and developing a sense of belonging in a foreign country. However, not everybody feels welcome. “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 gang with knives,” says a respondent, of an incident that occured last year.

We strongly recommend the setting up of infrastructure for the reporting and management of Caste-based discrimination cases within our religious institutions. Our missions, boards, ceremonial, charitable, and values processes must explicitly remind that Caste-based discrimination will not be tolerated.

 

South Asian Progressive Organizations

The fight to end Caste-based discrimination is part of the journey towards equality and respect for all our communities. The most important recommendation we can make for South Asian organizations is to ensure that organization vision and/or mission statements mention Caste explicitly, so that every progressive South Asian American community remains committed to the idea that we must  fight both white supremacy and Caste apartheid. The erasure of Caste is no longer an option for anyone in our movements.


Community Reviews for Caste in the United States

Immigration revitalizes and sustains America. Therefore the nation is better served by opening its arms to those who traverse seas and deserts and make this country better. We welcome their tenacity, intelligence, and labor. We, however, ask that beliefs and practices that result in prejudice and discrimination be left behind. This report sheds light on caste oppression – its magnitude and its harmful consequences. But the report does, it is a call to action – to stand in solidarity with the Caste oppressed, to make their plight our cause.

PAUL Y. WATANABE, PH.D. DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES, AND PROFESSOR, DEPT. OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, BOSTON

 

This excellent report confirms caste discrimination is prevalent amongst the US South Asian diaspora. Nearly 10 years ago the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance’s report ‘A Hidden Apartheid’ found the same in the UK. Caste discrimination is a problem wherever the South Asian Diaspora settle. Time's up for the Caste deniers. We must annihilate Caste and its pernicious.

SANTOSH DASS, MBE, ANTI CASTE DISCRIMINATION ALLIANCE, UNITED KINGDOM

 

The Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK welcomes this excellent report about Caste Discrimination in the USA. Dr Ambedkar warned the world that Caste will be emigrated to other counters. Here is some more proof.

ARUN KUMAR, FEDERATION OF AMBEDKARITE AND BUDDHIST ORGANISATIONS, UNITED KINGDOM

 

This report is a timely intervention in complicating the history of a demography that has primarily been understood as a “model minority” in this country. Even though it has been historically identified as a homogenous Hindu community, the report states that this apparently innocuous label has hidden the experiences of Dalits, Shudras and Adivasis who continue to feel excluded, judged and marked by the community’s exclusionary practices in the United States. It must be appreciated that the report does not conflate the experiences of all South Asians under the same rubric. For instance, it is sensitive to the experiences of South Asians who have a history of indentured labor in the Caribbean and acknowledges that it cannot be conflated with the professional diaspora that migrated from India after immigration laws changed in the United States in 1965. I'd be curious to see whether the report will generate any kind of self-reflection and desire for progressive change within the South Asian community. 

DRISHADWATI BARGI, PH.D CANDIDATE, DEPARTMENT OF ASIAN LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

 

The South Asian caste system is one of those systems that you can only truly understand if you have lived it. This peculiarity of caste system makes this report extremely remarkable given how deftly and concisely it manages to explain and contextualize the idea and prevalence of caste in the United States. The report documents how this horrible system of caste, like a nefarious virus, is not only an excellent survivor, it's also an amazing traveler, crossing oceans and mountains safely lodged in the hearts and brains of its practitioners. Without doubt, a report that deserves to be read and discussed widely.

ARIF HUSSAIN, COALITION FOR DEMOCRATIC INDIA

 

Caste in the United States provides broad and deep enough insights where one can get a glimpse of the horrors of the caste system. While it provides significant empirical evidence from respondents it lays threadbare the myth that South Asians once in the diaspora to not have to face discrimination based on caste or that the once privileged in South Asia give up their supremacist ideas once they cross the shores. As someone born into a Brahmin family, this Survey also works as a wake up call on dominant caste communities and how there is a lot of education needed within ourselves to eliminate caste prejudices in distant lands like the US.

VINAY BHAT, Management Consultant, San Francisco

 

This report is the first and only existing demographic survey that collects information on caste affiliation among South Asian Americans. The landmark study interrupts long-held beliefs that caste logics have been abandoned or muted once oceans were crossed. Gathering demographic data on caste affiliation is a highly contested and politicized research objective -- a controversy that has helped in the erasure of Bahujan migration experience for decades. In recent years, caste-related studies on discrimination in the United Kingdom have been met with intense opposition from multiple Hindu-centric Indian groups. Despite its profound structural impact, caste as a social determinant has always been under-examined, especially in the diaspora. Among its key findings, the caste survey study demonstrates that Dalit Americans face strikingly disproportionate levels of increased discrimination, verbal harassment and physical aggression than any other caste category. Furthermore, we know from this study that Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi desi communities are not a minority, but in fact make up over half of the sample population—further complicating commonly held notions of the dominant caste composition of the South Asian American population. The caste survey study begins to address a much neglected area of research and gap in our knowledge of South Asian communities and is an indispensable resource tool for researchers, activists and advocates alike.

SONIA CHERUVIL, Adjunct Lecturer and Ph. D. candidate, School of Public Health, City University of New York

 

I read the report and found it to be very informative. To begin with, I liked the format of the report, it was easy to read with personal experiences and data followed by its clear interpretations in simple words. I have personally seen the Anti-blackness among the Indian origin communities here in the states. These people I encountered were mostly born here in the States and have seen them throw slurs around like “Black people have it easy through affirmative action policies”. It is surprisingly similar to most upper Caste people’s view on reservation policies in India. They fail or most probably ignore to acknowledge their privileges.  I am confident this report will bring some change in people's perspectives. I hope more similar works comes out in future from Equality labs and I am confident it will help counter the false claims from Hindu fundamentalist groups. 

shakthi varman

 

The survey of caste in the U.S. does a great job of tying historical Caste-related occurrences in the South Asian American diaspora to how much effect Caste has in people’s lives in current times. The patterns that Equality Labs have identified using the data they collected, clearly show the need for us to engage in this issue and understand it. I was specifically shocked to learn that school going kids in the US are facing this kind of discrimination! Hope that many South Asian and American organizations work with Equality Labs to ensure that their spaces are inclusive and free of Caste discrimination.

AMRUTHA RAJIV, volunteer at association for india's development


Our Endorsements

ACADEMIC ENDORSEMENTS

Aniruddha Dutta, Assistant Professor, Department of Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies and Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Iowa

Chinniah Jangam, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Carleton University, Canada

Cornel R. West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Harvard Divinity School

Davinder Prasad, General Secretary, British Organisation for People of Asian Origin

Esther Parajuli, Ph. D. Candidate, Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary

Reverend Doctor Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar, Doctor of Theology, Union Theological Seminary

Gowri Vijayakumar, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Brandeis University

Huma Dar, Ph. D. Candidate, South and South East Asian studies, University of California, Berkeley

Jinee Lokaneeta, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.

John Boopalan, Post-Doctoral fellow at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA

Karlene Griffiths Sekou, Master of Divinity, Harvard University

Karthik Shekhar, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

Kavita Philip, Professor, History Department, University of California Irvine

Ketaki Deshpande. PhD student Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. University of Arkansas

Kripanand Komanapalli, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Religion, Columbia University

Mark Lewis Taylor, Ph.D., Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary

Mohammed Hussain Abdul Jabbar, M.S, Ph.D, Research Scientist, University of Maryland

Nishant Upadhyay, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Women's and Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

Pallavi Rao, Ph. D. candidate, The Media School, Indiana University, Bloomington

Pampi, Culture Worker, In Divine Company

Richard Fox Young, Associate Professor of the History of Religions, Princeton Theological Seminary 

Sangeetha Ravichandran, Associate Director, Arab American Cultural Center, University of Illinois at Chicago(UIC) and  Research Assistant at Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy  

Sangay Mishra, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Drew University

Shweta Moorthy, PhD, Researcher, Coalition of Communities of Color, Portland, Oregon

Sonia J. Cheruvilil, M.P.H. Adjunct Lecturer and Ph. D. candidate, School of Public Health, City University of New York

Urmitapa Dutta, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

INSTITUTIONAL ENDORSEMENTS

Ambedkar Association of North America

Ambedkar International Mission

Ambedkar International Center

ActSecure

Activist Calendar

Association for India's Development, Boston

Alliance of South Asians Taking Action

Asian American Resource Workshop

Bahujan History of Indenture

Bahujanpedia

Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project

Berkeley Muslim Identities and Cultures

Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour

Black Lives Matter, Boston

Boston Study Group

British Organisation for People of Asian Origin

Dalit History Month

Decolonize this Place

Desis Rising Up and Moving

East Meets World Bookstore

FANG Collective

Friends for Education International

Indian American Muslim Council

Queer South Asian Collective

Raices Boriken Collective

South Asian Americans Leading Together

South Asian Diaspora Artists Collective

South Asian Histories For All

South Asia Center

South Asia Solidarity Initiative

South Asia Workers Center

Subcontinental Drift

Survivor Theator Project

TwoCircles.net

Whose Knowledge ?


Further reading