Where is the coverage of caste discrimination in the U.S?

If American reporters think at all about caste discrimination, it’s within the context of India, where caste describes a system implemented thousands of years ago to identify people hierarchically. But in the United States, where the Indian population has doubled around every decade from 1980 to 2010, caste discrimination is an invisible problem — largely because journalism here has failed to shed a light on it.  

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Discussing caste in remains a taboo, the type of secret that is alluded to but never discussed openly. In the U.S., the landscape for coverage of South Asians from mainstream publications in the U.S. is already sparse terrain, and for coverage of caste discrimination, even more sporadic. In 2019, WGBH did a four part series on caste in the U.S. and NPR’s Codeswitch published an in-depth story in 2018 focused on a Survey by Equality Labs, a South Asian human rights non-profit, that concluded 90% of Indians in the U.S. are from upper castes.  

Caste still determines much of modern life in India and South Asia. The designation of caste originally denoted jobs available to certain castes, but also has entrenched a violent hierarchy between castes. Brahmin people are said to have been descended from priests, Kshatriyas were slightly lower than Brahmins and were warriors, Vaishyas were the merchant class, and Shudras were laborers. Dalit people existed outside of these designations are still the lowest status — they have done work relating to human sanitation. While these designations are very broad and specific castes emerge in certain regions, they encapsulate the broad caste hierarchy that has been ingrained in Indian society for the past 2,000 years. 

Essentially, where there is caste, there is also caste discrmination. And the designations of Brahmin (or “upper caste”) and Dalit (or “untouchable”) are compounded by social rules which make inter-caste relations incredibly untenable. 

One recent court case involving a major technology company in Silicon Valley brought the undercovered problem briefly to the forefront of major legacy newspapers. The story, initially published by the wire services Reuters and the Associated Press, detailed a lawsuit that filed against Cisco Systems, the San Jose-based technology conglomerate, by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing for religious discrimination.

According to the lawsuit, an employee at Cisco says that he was discriminated against by his boss on the basis of caste (since California and no other U.S. state or has laws against caste discrimination, the agency cannot specify this as a legal argument and instead sued based on religous discrimination). The employee alleges that his boss, who is from an upper caste, implemented punitive measures for the engineer after learning about his caste status: denying bonuses and raises, as well as revealing to other upper caste employees at Cisco that the engineer had been accepted into a university in India through an affirmative action program.

“Since the Cisco lawsuit I think there has been a lot more attention that has been paid to the issue,” said Yashica Dutt, the author of a recent New York Times opinion piece on how caste manifests in the U.S. She mentioned that a lot of this attention has been from the Washington Post, which according to her, has covered India and caste previously. 

But while the Cisco lawsuit drew attention to caste discrimination, it’s a good example of what it takes for a story about caste discrimination in the U.S. to get told. In order to get coverage of the issue, the story seemingly required a lawsuit from a state agency. And even then, the story was originally only run by major outlets by syndicating the Reuter’s wire story, instead outlets covering it themselves. 

Dutt noted that before the lawsuit, few publications in the U.S. covered caste and casteism.

When speaking about why it’s important for reporters to be knowledgeable about caste, Dutt said that caste discrimination persists in the U.S. not just in the workplace, but in places of worship — specifically Hindu temples — and in arranged marriages where caste is often the impetus for the arrangement. 

While the Caste system in the U.S. functions very differently, mostly in more discrete ways, it is here. Caste determines how a majority of Indian people in the U.S. socialize, who we marry, and where we pray. Mostly, euphemistic language shrouds those conversations: “Are potential partners from a ‘good family?’ or are they ‘good match?’” These questions are the interpersonal manifestations of a larger, more insidious system, and do the work in reinforcing the caste system (and largely present in Netflix’s controversial Indian Matchmaking). 

“Caste exists and persists through the people who bring it with them and kind of nurture it by segregating themselves in different communities and trying to investigate which caste people are from and that’s how caste is allowed to thrive here,” said Dutt. 

The hierarchical system has discrimination and injustice built in, and many upper caste people refuse to socialize with, eat with, or even be seen with lower caste, Dalit, people. Close to 25 percent of Indians identify as Dalit, which means “oppressed” in Marathi and refers to their status as the lowest in the caste system. Being Dalit, or “untouchable”, often means being subject to violence and that you can’t fully participate in society due to rampant discrimination.

Dutt, who was born Dalit, said reporters should consider that a Dalit perspective can make their reporting inclusive and work against propagating one perspective. 

“It’s really also important to understand the Dalit point of view on a certain aspect, whether it’s food, whether it’s cultural events,” she said. “I think it’s crucial for U.S. based reporters if they are seeking a Hindu point of view, if they are seeking a Muslim point of view, if they are seeking a South Asian Christian point of view also pay attention to the Dalit narrative on any issue.”

Since the U.S. has so many Indian immigrants, Dutt said it’s important to figure out how caste interaction happens and the “barriers of entry” for lower caste people. 

“So if there are so many Dalits who are not even able to make it to the U.S. and the ones who do live under a majority of so-called ‘upper castes,’ population[s] who inherently feel that they lie at the top of the caste hierarchy, then it’s really crucial to investigate how that discrimination is being carried out,” she said.

Often, reporting on Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities barely identifies the ways in which these large communities function despite the gradations that exist within them. Instead, the few stories that do tell the stories of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups usually flatten them and ignore their vast spectrum of experiences, with little to no attention paid to how people vary on the basis of class, religion, immigration status, sexuality, gender and yes, caste. 

The story of caste and South Asian diasporas in North America, Europe, the Carribean, Africa and Asia is vast and spans hundreds of years, but caste would be less of a buzzword or require less explanation if South Asian diasporas, including Indo-Carribean communities, were not only reported on, but considered important enough by media institutions to report for.

Siri Chilukuri is a member of The Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Image sourced from DennisM2.

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