American universities offer protection from caste discrimination
Indian students suffer from “hidden apartheid”
Suraj Yengde thought he left caste discrimination behind him in India. A member of the Dalit caste, Yengde knew that members of dominant castes thought of him as an “untouchable,” a derogatory term for Dalits. But he didn’t expect to experience that discrimination at Harvard University.
Yengde earned his undergraduate degree in Nanded, then traveled to South Africa, and, finally, Harvard for his master’s and doctoral degrees. As a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Yengde helped students organize a panel, organizing lectures and guests. Students from India make up roughly 5 percent of the Kennedy School’s student body. But when other Indians recognized individuals who assisted with the panel, they didn’t mention Yengde. “I was the one who was organizing everything [for the panel,]” he said. “The dominant caste people just didn’t find it relevant.”
Schools across the country enshrine protections based on sex, religion, race, and ethnicity in their nondiscrimination policies. But a handful of schools are adding caste protections to those policies in an effort to assist students facing discrimination based on the ancient social hierarchy.
Caste has been practiced in South Asia, predominantly in India, for about 3,000 years. People are born into castes that determine their social standing and often their livelihoods. Traditionally, members of higher, dominant castes became priests and warriors, while members of the lower, oppressed castes were relegated to demeaning or even dangerous jobs, such as cleaning sewers with little to no protection. Members of the Dalit caste are considered by other castes to be the lowest of the low.
In India, members of oppressed castes suffer violence due to caste discrimination. In the U.S., caste discrimination can be harder to spot.
Meena Varma, executive director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network, said Americans often don’t recognize caste discrimination when it happens. “We call it a hidden apartheid for a reason,” she said. “The people who are discriminating against the people and the people who are being discriminated against are actually of the same ethnic origin. … You might think someone was sitting at a separate table just because they weren’t friends with that person rather than a deliberate move.” A simple gesture like asking someone’s last name can be a veiled attempt to determine their caste, as surnames often indicate caste.
“This is a growing problem across the globe, as we are now globetrotting and we are moving across continents to live, to work, to study, to marry, to have children,” Varma said. “Wherever the South Asian diaspora in particular goes, they take their caste with them. And so caste discrimination then gets practiced amongst the diaspora. It gets practiced amongst the younger generation and actually, it’s become a badge of pride.”
The number of Indian students coming to study in the U.S. jumped this year as COVID-19 restrictions loosened. Immigrants from India in America outnumber immigrants from every country except Mexico, numbering over 4.6 million, or a little over one percent of the population. According to a 2016 survey by the Dalit civil rights group Equality Labs, one-third of Dalit students at U.S. colleges said they faced discrimination at school.
In 2019, Brandeis University in Massachusetts became the first U.S. university to add caste to its list of protected categories in its nondiscrimination policies. Maine’s Colby College and the University of California-Davis also added caste protections that year. In January, the California State University system also expanded its policies to include caste discrimination. Earlier this month, Brown University added caste protections, the first Ivy League school to make the move. Brown University officials wrote in a press release that they hope the action will “call attention to a subtle, often misunderstood form of structural inequality.”
In addition to shining a light on lesser-known discrimination, adding caste protections also allows students to file a complaint if they feel others have used their caste against them.
But not all South Asians agree on caste protections.
Earlier this year, two California State University professors, Sunil Kumar and Praveen Sinha, filed a lawsuit over the school system’s caste protections, saying the new rule would unfairly target Hindus. Varma brushed off the criticism, arguing that people critical of caste protections are often from the more dominant castes. “We have always said that caste discrimination is not just a Hindu problem, it is not an India problem,” she said, adding that other South Asian communities, as well as some communities in Africa and Japan have descent-based discrimination. “[These professors are] making that a Hindu issue, they are making caste an issue within Hinduism itself.”
Caste discrimination reaches into the U.S. workforce in areas with more Indian or South Asian employees. In 2020, California Department for Fair Employment and Housing officials sued the digital communications company Cisco Systems over allegations that managers limited an employee’s work assignments due to his caste.
Yengde said that while some members of dominant castes are “honorable exceptions,” most choose to belittle him in conversations. As schools recognize caste discrimination that often goes unnoticed, Yengde wants to see more colleges join the trend. “More university campuses recognizing and outlawing it—there is a hope,” he said.
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