Caste was added as a protected category by California State University last week, and comes amid a larger conversation about casteism in the United States.

A building of California State University with people walking in and out
news Caste Wednesday, January 26, 2022 - 14:42

Though many have hailed the decision by California State University to include caste as a protected category, one group has come out in opposition to the move along with some faculty members of the university. In a letter to the university, the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy organisation which claims to educate about Hindus and Hinduism, alleged that the inclusion of caste is discriminatory and will adversely impact faculty, staff and students of south Asian or Indian origin. 

The California State University (CSU) system, one of the largest university systems in the United States, has 23 campuses, 4.85 lakh students and 55,000 faculty and staff members. Caste was added as a protected category in the policy last week, and comes amid a larger conversation about casteism in the United States. In 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco and former managers in the company after a Dalit Indian-American employee had alleged that they had been discriminated against on the basis of caste.  

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), however, claims that the concept of “caste” is “singularly associated and falsely equated with Hindus, Indians and to a lesser extent, South Asians.” The letter alleged that caste as a class category “is widely misunderstood, has no universally accepted definition, and is neither apparent nor inherent.” The group has claimed that discrimination based on caste is “exceedingly rare” and move will instead target  “all Hindu, Indian and South Asian faculty and staff on the basis of their national origin, ethnicity, ancestry, and religion.” They have further claimed that the move is “ethnically antagonistic” and is likely to impact over 600 faculty of Indian and South Asian descent, and will create division where it apparently does not exist. 

It also flagged a letter sent by 80 faculty members of the California State University, who alleged that the policy was “misguided overreach” and that it will, in turn, lead to more discrimination by “unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent.”

The letter also stated that the trustees and administrators must exercise due diligence, fact-check as well as consult their legal counsel about the liabilities the university will incur as a result of this new policy.

On the other hand, faculty members as well as other associations across California have come in support of the policy. A letter with over 450 signatories, at least 111 of whom are Cal State faculty members, applauded the university system for protecting the rights of students, faculty and staff oppressed by caste. The letter further states that the addition of caste does not affect other protected categories, and that it impacts more than 5.6 million South Asians in the US. 

“Caste also continues to operate in the US through forms of social exclusion and workplace discrimination. Extending protections to oppressed castes does not negate existing protections on the basis of religion, nationality, race, and ancestry. The argument put forth by the opponents of the decision that existing protections are sufficient to address caste-based discrimination is patently false,” supporters of the policy stated in a letter. It adds that while caste is believed to be covered under existing categories, those who have been oppressed have asked that it be made explicit. 

“This is not unlike other protected categories like that of sexuality and gender that were expanded to better address the needs of queer and trans people,” the letter added. 

It added that the inclusion of caste is not anti-Hindu, and that the attempt to discredit the stakeholders is also an expression of casteism that “underscores the need for institutional protections.”

Letters in support of the addition of caste were also written by the Asian Pacific American Labour Alliance and the California Trade Justice Coalition.

Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisation, aided in the process of including caste as a protected category. In a 2018 survey, the organisation found that of the 1,500 respondents, 52% of Dalits and 25% of Shudras were worried about their caste being ‘outed’, as opposed to 1% of Brahmins. It said that 60% of Dalits experienced caste-based discrimination in the US, and two out of three reported being treated unfairly at the workplace.

The Hindu America Foundation, however, refuted this survey, and pointed to another survey by the Carnegie Endowment that “contradicts” the Equality Labs study.  

The survey by the Carnegie Endowment states that the Equality Labs survey is not based on a representative sample, which “raises questions about the generalisability of its findings.” But in the pool of respondents in the Carnegie Endowment’s survey, 16% identified as OBC and 1% as SC/ST. It called for the findings to be treated with caution as the respondents were restricted to Hindus. “Given the sensitive nature of caste identity, nonresponses in the survey could mask those who do not wish to disclose their caste affiliation even if they are aware of their family’s caste identity,” the survey said.

While the survey says discrimination was primarily on the basis of country of origin or skin colour, it also suggested a possibility that respondents interpret caste discrimination as a stand-in for other forms of discrimination, such as on the basis of skin color or country of origin. “Given that only 5% of IAAS [Indian American Attitudes Survey] respondents report being victims of caste discrimination, any subgroup analysis must be interpreted with due care given the small sample sizes involved,” it says.

The letter by faculty in support of the policy said that discrediting the Equality Labs survey “is emblematic of the violence caste oppressed individuals and organisations face when working towards their rights. It is also the precise reason why such protections are urgently needed in the system.”

Thenmozhi Soundarajan, the Executive Director of Equality Labs, responding to the faculty and Hindu American Foundation, told TNM that this was a display of bigotry and disinformation, and that the leadership of the HAF are upper caste, and are peddling falsehoods and fear.

“Dominant caste people are in power. They can complain and be upset about the prospect of equity, but they cannot stop progress. What I would encourage them to do is to put their energy into learning more about caste equity, and being able to develop self reflective practices to understand better why the concept of equity disturbs their nervous system so much and is there an opportunity for them to use their discomfort as a learning moment versus derailing democratic processes,” she said. 

Reacting to the letters by HAF and the faculty members opposing the addition, lead organiser Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit Social Work student at CSU East Bay who advocated for adding caste as a protected category, told TNM that caste-based violence and discrimination is rampant in the south Asian diaspora. 

“We can't erase the lived experiences and needs of caste-oppressed people.The deeply personal and traumatic testimonies we have heard for months, and the work of Dalit and caste-oppressed scholars and organisers establishes that caste based discrimination exists and needs to be protected against,” he said, adding that those who raised the issue are now facing bigoted and violent attacks. This, he added, underscores why caste equity protections are needed.

“Hindu American Foundation is spreading misinformation. Their letter to the decision makers at CSU defends caste supremacy. Apart from this, they are also diminishing the importance of democratic negotiations over months to get caste added as a protected category into contracts and policy documents. I hope they are able to understand that caste protections are only an additive layer of support for students like me – diversity, equity and inclusion offices have checks to ensure that the addition of one category does not cause harm to other people and they should trust this process. Changing the policy now, simply in the face of pushback  from the HAF, is undermining workers’ rights itself,” he said. 

Read: Top US university system adds caste to its non-discrimination policy

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