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West Coast Casts Wide Net for Caste Welfare: Part I

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The American Dream is a collective aspiration, but not always a collective vision. For some, it is represented by a cozy house of one's own with a white picket fence. For others, it is more broadly the opportunity for a better life. A lot of people, including FindLaw staff and readers, are immigrants who've come to the United States seeking a better life of some sort, whether it be economic or ideological. In many cases, the United States is indeed able to afford a better quality of life or protections such as political asylum for immigrants.

But for others, the land of the free does not always live up to its name. The U.S. has made many strides in ensuring equal protection of its citizens and freedom from discrimination on the basis of factors such as race, nationality, sex, orientation, and disability. As you know, not all of these protections came at once; they trickled out as more cultural awareness of different types of marginalization came to light. And still today, one determinant of oppression that remains largely in the shadows iscaste.

For most Americans, the caste system is a vague notion languishing in grade school World History textbooks. But for South Asian immigrants from certain caste backgrounds, it's a daily source of disparate treatment, even in the new country. Only recently are governments, mostly on the West Coast, doing anything about it. Part I of this blog provides a primer on the caste system and how it affects modern Americans. Part II is about the progressive policies passed by pioneers on the West Coast.

Contextualizing Caste in the Old Country

In the U.S., Asian immigrants have outnumbered Hispanic immigrants in the past decade, with those from India making up the second fastest-growing immigrant population. Of course, South Asians themselves are an incredibly diverse group that often get lumped together or engulfed under "Indian" and "Hindu" classifications. In reality, this group is much more geographically and culturally expansive than that. It includes people from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Afghanistan, among others.

The relationship between caste and religion is also often misunderstood. To say that caste is a distinctly Hindu phenomenon is a skewed version of the picture. Rather, other major religions of South Asia originated, at least in part, as a reaction to casteism. For example, you may be familiar with Sikhism from contentious recent news. This religion emerged in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century and is founded on a core tenet of rejecting caste-based hierarchy. Buddhism, which arose as a rejection of Hinduism, challenged the dominance of Brahmin priests and attracts followers from various castes. Jainism also traditionally opposes caste discrimination.

The caste system is a complex social hierarchy historically prevalent primarily in India and Nepal. It divides society into rigid and hereditary groups based on occupation and social status, and endorses endogamy within those groups. The system traditionally consists of four main categories, in descending hierarchical order: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Beyond these four categories, there are numerous sub-castes and thousands of smaller caste groups. Importantly, those that call themselves Dalits (pejoratively called "untouchables"), are essentially recognized as devoid of caste altogether.

The system has been associated with discrimination, social inequality, and limited opportunities, particularly for those in "backward castes," including the Dalits. While the caste system is officially outlawed in India and Nepal, it still influences social dynamics in some regions and communities, despite formal government efforts to promote social equality and affirmative action for marginalized groups.

Caste Complexities in the New Country

What about in the United States? Unlike certain factors of discrimination such as sex, the lack of existing legislation on caste issues can be explained at least in part by its niche experience. Due to its roots in South Asian communities, the caste system is a problem faced by a unique subset of Americans. We all see males and females in our daily lives, but we don't all see South Asians, let alone different castes of South Asians. If we do, those outside of the South Asian community may not recognize caste distinctions or even be familiar with their cultural and historical significance. Yet within the community, caste is often as transparent as the color of one's skin because, at least historically, family names are tied to a specific caste. Thus, discerning the caste of a stranger is often as simple as knowing their surname.

Even for many South Asians in the U.S., at least for those of "upper castes," the concept does not occupy much mental real estate. A 2020 study found that about half of all Hindu Indian Americans identified with a caste, but 83% of them identified as belonging to one of the middle-to-upper castes. Sixteen percent identified as "other backward classes," and 1% identified as Dalit. This is unsurprising, given the resources and privilege needed to immigrate to the U.S., but the result is that the majority of South Asians in the United States are sheltered from caste discrimination based on their upper-class status.

Like Lady Gaga says, it's often hard to recognize discrimination until it happens to you. Recent research shows that for South Asian Americans of lower-caste backgrounds, this type of oppression is unfortunately not a thing of the past. They described a common disillusionment of the purported American melting pot and a common surprise that the problems they thought they'd left behind in their native countries continued to play out in their new homeland. A 2016 survey of 1,500 South Asians in the United States found that 1 in 3 Dalit students reported being discriminated against on the basis of their caste during their American education, while 2 out of 3 Dalits said they had been treated unfairly based on their caste at their American workplace.

Since caste issues are usually out of sight, out of mind for the majority of Americans both in and outside the South Asian community, policies addressing them have made little headway until recently. In the wake of mounting evidence revealing the persistence of caste-based discrimination among South Asian immigrants in the United States, particularly on the West Coast, local governments and educational institutions have taken significant steps to address this deeply rooted issue.

Part II of this series delves into the recent initiatives in California and Seattle, where efforts to combat caste discrimination have gained momentum. 

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