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Organizers are Mobilizing for Caste Protections in U.S. Institutions. Here's Why

Prem Pariyar is an organizer in the San Francisco Bay area. He is a social worker, community organizer, and a former restaurant worker with a Nepali Dalit identity. He thought the caste system disappeared when he stepped foot into the U.S. but as he became involved with South Asian circles in the Bay area, he realized that this system of graded inequality operated in similar ways in the U.S.

“[When] I was invited to a house party in the Bay Area [with] dominant caste families, everyone in the room started to take food. I joined them [but] when my turn came up, I was asked to stay back, [to] not come closer to the food,” Pariyar said. “I couldn't believe they told me that. I couldn't sleep that night. Even in the U.S., caste discrimination is practiced.”

To the untrained eye, asking Pariyar to stay clear of the food on the table is confusing at best. But when we look at this incident through the lens of caste-based discrimination, the real story starts to unfold.

“[Dominant caste people] believe my presence makes them impure and polluted,” Pariyar said. “This is the common experience that other Nepali Dalits are also experiencing in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

A report by the Human Rights Watch called “Hidden Apartheid; Caste Discrimination against India’s ‘Untouchables’” recounts countless incidents of caste discrimination based on this idea that if a dominant caste person touches a Dalit person, they are immediately polluted. Like any other systemic form of oppression, discrimination, segregation, and rules for behavior around dominant caste people are the norm.

According to many anti-caste organizers, organizations, and oppressed caste people, these discriminatory behaviors carry over to the U.S. and individuals, organizations, and educational institutions are doing something about it.

In the United States, there are approximately 5.4 million South Asians but of that community more than 90% belong to oppressor castes.  Like Pariyar, many caste-oppressed folks experience exclusion, violence, and discrimination from these dominant caste groups. According to a 2018 study, 2 out of 3 Dalits surveyed reported unfair treatment in the workplace and 1 in 3 Dalit students faced discrimination during their education. Despite these statistics, there is little caste awareness in many institutions meaning there is no protection against casteism in these spaces.

But people at these institutions are demanding change.

“When I started to go to university as a social worker student, I heard so many stories of racial discrimination, gender-based discrimination, [and] discrimination based on sexuality, but I never heard about caste discrimination … [so] I started to share my story in the classroom,” Pariyar said.

Working closely with Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite South Asian power-building organization, Pariyar ran workshops to educate his fellow colleagues and professors on casteism.

Because of his advocacy, the California State University (CSU) East Bay Social Work department became the first department in any CSU to adopt caste protections. This win was the catalyst for the creation of a national organizing campaign called Caste as a Protected Category — a group of inter-faith and inter-caste students across the U.S. dedicated to caste protections.

In 2021, with the power of this core organizing team led by Dalit organizers, the Cal State Student Association, passed a resolution to include caste as a protected category across the 23 campuses of the CSU system. In the same year, UC Davis also became the third institution to add caste to their non-discriminatory policy.

Sahiba, a former student at Cal Poly State and the principal author behind the CSSA resolution, began their work on caste protections through this campaign. They built upon Pariyar’s work at CSU Eastbay and began mobilizing to extend caste protections across all CSU campuses.

“Mobilizing for me was the most powerful part because I have never seen South Asians show up,” Sahiba said.

Less than 24 hours before the CSSA hearing to vote on the resolution, Sahiba was informed that opposition would be attending to strike the resolution down.

“I freaked out, but the power of mobilizing came through,” Sahiba said. “People were going on twitter; people were sharing [the hearing] everywhere [and] there were some really big people who were big academics that were tapping into their circles and sharing it on their end.”

Over 100 people participated at the CSSA hearing and the resolution was passed.

“It was just so powerful to see that in less than 24 hours a whole bunch of people showed up to support caste protections from across the nation,” Sahiba said. “When you center the work of Dalit feminists, when you build from a place of anti-caste, the resistance of casteism, there is power. That was a glimpse of South Asian liberation because of caste abolition.”

Simultaneous victories

On the other side of the country, victories at Brandeis University and Colby College were happening almost simultaneously.

In December 2019, Brandies University became the first higher education institution in the U.S. to add caste to their nondiscriminatory policy. Following suit, Professor Sonja Thomas began organizing at Colby College in Maine.

“One of the ways in which casteism is upheld is through systems of education,” Thomas said. “Rohith's suicide is one of many stories of this violence, and we don't need another story — that's one of the reasons I got involved [with caste protections].”

After chatting with multiple authorities on campus including professors, student leaders, and the legal team, Thomas quickly built a team of support. She realized adding caste protections to the policy would not be a hard feat to accomplish at a small private school. The larger issue was ignorance.

“We live in the whitest state in the nation — with a population of South Asians that is pretty minuscule,” Thomas explained.

Thomas said that she needed to first inform the Colby community what casteism is and then, to any naysayers, explain that this form of discrimination exists, exists in the higher education, and it affects all students.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a small population of South Asians, it affects all of us and so that’s where we started [with] a series of what we call teach-ins [that I ran].”

Through the efforts of Thomas and her team, Colby joined Brandies as the second college in the U.S. to adopt caste protections.

The history of weaponizing caste

Caste is indisputably an American issue that has existed undetected for many years.

In 2020, the first lawsuit on the basis of caste was filed against Cisco. The tech giant was charged with ignoring the caste-based discrimination two of their employees faced at their institution despite multiple investigations.

That same year, 30 Dalit women engineers, came forward to expose the casteism in Silicon Valley.

In their statement, they said:

“We have seen casteist bias dominate the hiring, referrals, and peer review processes in our respective workplaces. None of us were hired through those dominant caste “boys clubs” networks (we were employed through a general hiring process). As a result, working with Indian managers is a living hell… But, again, we did not have a lot of options to report these incidents to our respective HR departments because caste was not a protected category. The worry about losing our immigration status if we were fired was another barrier. Sadly, many of us left jobs, but not tech, because of these dynamics.”

Across the country in New Jersey, a temple trapped hundreds of Dalit men to do construction work on its site. These men faced severe abuse, including being forced to work 13-hour days, while living in trailers on very little food.  And though the project is suspected to have been ongoing for many years, it was uncovered in 2021.

From all these accounts, it is clear that caste is continually weaponized against Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi communities. But since caste is not yet a recognized category, the burden to both explain the system and prove discrimination falls on the caste oppressed victim.

According to all of the anti-caste organizers that spoke to The Blueprint, adding caste as a protected category will ensure that victims of casteism can report the abuse and receive protection from their institutions.

The victories and work that has already been done at higher education universities has shown us that caste protections can happen.

“This means a lot for our communities,” Pariyar explains. “If caste discrimination does not exist, there will be peace and that can help us grow together. Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi members will feel that safety everywhere … and we can [then] come out with pride — we will not have to fear.”