The Casteism I See in America

A raft of evidence shows that caste discrimination has been imported from India to the United States.

Illustration by Arsh Raziuddin; images by Universal History Archive / Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty

By Vidya Krishnan
2021 Nov 06
About the author: Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist based in Goa, India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in February 2022.

Indians and Indian Americans are often held up as a “model minority” in the United States. Members of this community are more likely to be highly educated and to have health insurance, make more money, work in more senior positions, and have lower rates of poverty than both the average immigrant and the average American. They are well represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM subjects—and more and more of them occupy roles of political and social influence, including Vice President Kamala Harris. This group, so the narrative goes, exhibits the promise of the American dream.

But two lawsuits in the past year, as well as two surveys, have offered a clearer picture of this particular minority group, warts and all, finding evidence that many members of the community have imported the specifically Hindu Indian notion of casteism to America. The vocabulary may be unfamiliar to most Americans—Dalits, Brahmans, Adivasis, for example—but underlying it is a familiar, and corrosive, subject: discrimination.

In July 2020, California regulators sued the tech company Cisco Systems over alleged discrimination toward an Indian engineer by his Indian colleagues while all of them were working in the state. According to the complaint, the engineer’s co-workers, who are upper-caste Hindus, “outed” him in the workplace as a Dalit, pejoratively known as the “untouchable” caste, and argued that he had gained entry to the Indian Institute of Technology, one of India’s most prestigious universities, only as a result of affirmative action. (India has banned caste discrimination but does hold a certain number of places at public universities for Dalit and other lower-caste applicants.) The lawsuit claims that Cisco did not sufficiently address the aggrieved employee’s concerns and in fact sidelined him, treatment that violates the Civil Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The company denies the allegations, and though a spokesperson did not respond to my requests for comment, Cisco has said in a statement that it will “vigorously defend itself.”

Then, in May of this year, a federal lawsuit alleged that a Hindu organization, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, lured more than 200 lower-caste workers to the U.S. and forced them to work for as little as $1.20 an hour for several years to build a sprawling Hindu temple in New Jersey. Speaking with The New York Times when the lawsuit was filed, BAPS’s chief executive, Kanu Patel, said, “I respectfully disagree with the wage claim.” In response to my own questions, an organization spokesperson said that those who had helped build the temple were “artisan volunteers” who were “treated equally and with respect.” The spokesperson said that BAPS had worked in lower-caste communities of India “to help them integrate and succeed.”

The two cases, both of which remain unresolved, are extreme examples of what continues to be an everyday phenomenon in the Indian and Indian American community in the U.S.

I am Indian and have spent the past year in the U.S., initially at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow and then in Silicon Valley. On the East Coast, I met some of the brightest minds in the Indian diaspora, and the West Coast is packed with my compatriots, as well as longer-established Indian Americans.

But like all stereotypes, the one about the overachieving Indian or Indian American is at best incomplete, flattening a community of several million people. Though most Indians and Indian Americans are Hindu, a substantial number are Muslim, Sikh, or Christian (as well as followers of a host of other religions), and have moved to the U.S. from across India. Similarly to many other minority groups in the U.S., they suffer from racial discrimination, battle against stereotypes, and—despite their prominence in STEM fields—are underrepresented in large parts of the economy. And while they may represent the economic promise of the American dream, they do not appear to have taken hold of its deeper underpinning, at least according to survey data.

A 2016 study by Equality Labs, an American civil-rights organization focused on caste, found that 41 percent of South-Asian Americans who identify as lower-caste reported facing caste discrimination in U.S. schools and universities, compared with 3 percent of upper-caste respondents. The survey indicated that 67 percent of lower-caste respondents said they had suffered caste discrimination in the workplace, versus 1 percent of upper-caste individuals. (The survey of more than 1,500 people focused on Hindus. Though upper castes hold more power, caste discrimination is more complex than simply being meted out by upper castes against lower castes, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Equality Labs’s executive director, told me. “In fact,” she said, “it is all castes against all castes.”)

More recently, a September 2020 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that first-generation Indian immigrants to the U.S. were significantly more likely than U.S.-born respondents to espouse a caste identity. The overwhelming majority of Hindus with a caste identity—more than eight in 10—self-identified as upper-caste, and first-generation immigrants in particular tended to self-segregate, making their communities more and more homogenous in terms of religion and caste. Respondents to the Carnegie survey had varying responses to experiencing different forms of discrimination, depending on whether the discrimination occurred in the U.S. or in India, and who suffered from it. Overall, 73 percent viewed white supremacy as a threat to American democracy, but only 53 percent saw Hindu majoritarianism as a threat to Indian democracy. On the question of affirmative action in university admissions, the data suggest higher levels of support for the policy in the U.S. (54 percent) than India (47 percent).

The anguish caused by casteism is much like that caused by racism, resulting not simply from hateful slurs but from an expansive and intimate system woven into behavior, cultural practice, and economics. On a granular level, upper-caste Hindus do not share utensils or drinking water with those of lower castes, and lighter skin tones are preferred to darker ones. On a systemic level, society self-segregates, with upper castes often congregating in the same neighborhoods; the achievements of upper-caste Hindus come at least partially at the expense of lower-caste communities.

The system dictates that every child inherits their family’s caste, which is indicated by a person’s middle and last name—the name of one’s village and the profession of the family. Caste determines social status and spiritual purity and defines what jobs a person can do and whom they can marry. As outlined in Hindu mythology, men were created unequal by Lord Brahma, the Creator, supreme among the triad of Hindu gods that also includes Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, and Lord Vishnu, the Preserver. From Brahma’s head came the Brahmans—priests and intellectuals. From his arms came kings and warriors; from his thighs, white-collar workers; and from his feet, blue-collar workers. A fifth group, once described as untouchables, was kept outside of the caste system entirely, its place in the social order to clean toilets, sweep streets, and dispose of dead bodies. (The word pariah comes from the Tamil language and refers to one of the most persecuted and lowest of caste groups, the paṛaiyar, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Pariah is a global standard for social outcasts, but Tamil-Brahman families, including mine, use it as a term of abuse, and it has come to mean “someone who is despised.”)

The top three groups—Brahmans, warriors, and traders—are the upper castes and can intermarry and dine with one another. The last two groups, the lower castes, came to be seen as impure, carrying with them a stigma surrounding their hygiene and apparent proclivity for infectious diseases (though these factors are tightly linked to residential segregation that means lower castes have poorer access to municipal services). Over time, the term untouchable has been disavowed, replaced in the late 19th century by Dalit, which is Marathi for “broken but resilient people.”

India officially abolished the caste system soon after it won independence from Britain in 1947, but the system remains pervasive. Wealthy Indians in the country’s urban centers typically dismiss the caste system as either irrelevant in modern society or enforced only in poor, rural India, but neither is true. Though villages and small towns may be home to more overt forms of caste discrimination—literal lines, for example, denoting areas that Dalits cannot access—urban India is no caste-free oasis. And the Cisco and BAPS cases indicate that, as Hindus emigrate, foreign lands aren’t, either.

While at Harvard, I was asked by an Indian faculty member about my caste and family, and (Indian) friends in the Bay Area asked me to explain what casteism is, betraying a disappointing level of ignorance. When I gave my niece, then 6 years old, a children’s book on B. R. Ambedkar—one of India’s founding fathers, a Dalit who led the writing of the country’s constitution—I was told by relatives that she was too young to be exposed to “such subjects.” My family and friends in the U.S., upper-caste Indians and Indian Americans in the Bay Area who work in the tech industry, were unaware of the Cisco and BAPS cases and dismissed them when I described them. One responded, in language that might be familiar to other minority groups who try to call out white privilege, that “the Brahmans are the ones who are really suffering.”

The Cisco case marks a historic moment. The company—any company—would never have faced such charges in India, where caste-based discrimination, though illegal, is an accepted reality. The case’s ramifications will be profound. For one, they will shine a light on casteism itself, and its ubiquity. Indeed, even as a Dalit engineer allegedly suffered discrimination in California, a Dalit professor resigned over what he said was caste discrimination at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Mumbai campus. For another, the ruling will set a precedent for all American companies, particularly those with large numbers of Indian employees or operations in India. They will potentially be forced to more deeply consider caste diversity and antidiscrimination training among their priorities, along with race and gender.

The reality is that Indian immigrants in the U.S. and Indian Americans are an oppressed minority group, as well as a community with immense power—both over other immigrant groups, as a result of their wealth, and over fellow Indians. It hurts me to see ignorance and xenophobia directed at members of my community in the U.S., but it maddens me when those same people blindly pay those forward to caste-oppressed minorities in India and elsewhere.

This need not remain the case. Already, change—limited and hardly ambitious, sure, but change nonetheless—is under way. In September, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category to its code of conduct. An association representing nearly half a million university students in the state has passed a resolution seeking a ban on caste-based discrimination. The Cisco and BAPS cases show that claimants can at least try to fight back via American courts.

Caste may have traveled from India and penetrated American workplaces, colleges, and communities, like tea from a tea bag, somehow allowing a millennia-old system of discrimination to remain intact in Massachusetts as much as it has in Maharashtra. Perhaps America can begin to reverse that, and thereby set the tone for a progressive conversation about caste—both in the U.S. and in India.

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