April 25, 20184:00 PM ET
At over three thousand years old, caste hierarchy is one of the oldest forms of social stratification in the world: the community you’re born into in places like India, Pakistan and Nepal has designated where you can work, who you can marry, and what your reputation is in life. Even today in South Asia, caste conflict and discrimination remain a potent force in everyday life. In the United States, though, caste tends to be a relatively muted topic.
But a new survey, “Caste in the United States,” finds that caste discrimination is playing out in the United States as well — a finding that raises questions around how South Asian Americans understand themselves and their history.
The survey, which is the first of its kind, was commissioned by Equality Labs, a South Asian American human rights startup, and includes the experiences of about 1200 people who volunteered their answers.
The report on the survey’s results said that two-thirds of members of the lowest caste, called Dalits, said they have faced workplace discrimination due to their caste. Forty-one percent have experienced discrimination in education because of it. And a quarter of Dalits say they’ve faced physical assault — all in the United States. …
This survey provides data for what many in the community already know: any time there’s a dominant population of South Asians — whether they’re living in Silicon Valley or New Jersey, or working at an office or a restaurant — caste biases emerge. It could be anything from refusing to date or marry someone from a lower caste, to being on the receiving end of a casteist slur, to being made to sit separately because of your perceived “untouchability.” …
What makes caste discrimination even harder to combat in this new context is that some lower caste people hide their identity as well — 52 percent of Dalits surveyed worry about being “outted” as lower caste.
I’ve never heard of Untouchable-Americans. Are they here and hiding their status from their Hindu oppressors or not here? There are well over 150 million Untouchables in India, so I could imagine this becoming a big push in the US to give them all refugee status here. For example, if Modi’s Hindu Nationalist stays in power, liberal Indians in the US might start a big push to flood America with Dalits, kind of the way liberal American Jews don’t want Israel to send black illegal infiltrators back to Africa, they want Israel to dump the blacks on Europe.
And the issue is polarizing.
Suhag Shukla is the executive director of the advocacy group the Hindu American Foundation. She said it’s important to get rid of caste prejudice, but that this new survey unfairly essentializes and villainizes Hinduism. It’s one of the most complex arguments surrounding caste; as the survey notes, caste first appeared in Hindu scriptures. It now pervades all religions of South Asia.
“The single most problematic issue with this survey is that it traffics in the most dangerous and false tropes about Hinduism,” she said.
“So instead of demanding an honest conversation about caste and privilege, or its contested relevance among South Asian kids of the third and fourth generation who are now coming of age that are all brown regardless of caste, this report kind of alienates Hindus by scapegoating them,” Shukla said. Caste discrimination isn’t on the radar for many South Asian kids of later generations, she added. What they’re worried about is the discrimination they face for being brown in America. Hate crimes against Muslims and South Asians are at their highest levels since the year after 9/11.