Welcome to Race on Campus. Some colleges have added bias based on caste to their nondiscrimination policies. But some critics — including dozens of professors in the California State University system, which made that change this year — argue that a policy focused on caste discriminates against South Asians. Our Sarah Brown has more.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

What Is Discrimination by Caste?

It’s common in higher ed to hear about discrimination on the basis of race, age, sex, or sexual orientation. It’s a lot less common to hear about discrimination based on caste.

“Caste” is a term used in several different contexts, but typically it refers to a hierarchical system in some South Asian cultures, outlined in Hindu scripture, that sorted people into four different societal groups by birth. In countries like India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, people born into a lower caste, or outside of the caste system, have long faced discrimination. Most people who ranked below that four-caste structure were Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables.”

Dalits were historically excluded from certain institutions — including higher education — and professions by upper-caste members, as well as subjected to social shaming and even violence. While the caste system was banned in India more than 70 years ago, many Dalits say its influence persists.

Prem Pariyar, who recently earned his master’s degree in social work from California State University-East Bay, said he had moved to the United States from Nepal to try to escape the discrimination that came with being Dalit. But he experienced caste discrimination as a Cal State student, too.

Because discrimination by caste wasn’t banned, Pariyar said he had no avenue for reporting it to the university.

Pariyar said other Dalit students have been afraid to speak out publicly because it’s easy for South Asian people to identify someone else’s caste simply by last name. Students have reported using fake last names to hide their status.

Limited Data

But some faculty members across the Cal State system disagree with the picture Pariyar and others have painted. As they see it, caste discrimination in the United States is not an issue.

What’s more, they argue, banning discrimination based on caste is racism against the South Asian community.

“I’ve been to five different universities,” said Praveen Sinha, a professor of accountancy at California State University at Long Beach. “I’ve never heard of a caste-based discrimination.”

Sinha was among more than 80 faculty members across the Cal State system who signed a letter to the system’s trustees and top officials criticizing them for adding caste to the institution’s antidiscrimination policy. Sinha said university leaders and faculty leaders hadn’t listened to their concerns at all before making the change.

One challenge in this debate is that it’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent caste discrimination is in the United States, because the South Asian population is relatively small and there hasn’t been much research done on the matter. There are roughly 5.4 million South Asians in the United States, making up about 1.6 percent of the population, and most South Asian immigrants are from upper castes. A 2003 study found that 1.5 percent of Indian immigrants to the United States identified as Dalit.

A 2016 survey by Equality Labs, a group that advocates for Dalit civil rights, purports to show “the first evidence of caste discrimination in the U.S.” The survey, which included about 1,200 participants who identified as South Asian, found that one-third of respondents who identified as Dalit said they had experienced discrimination during their education.

A 2020 survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Johns Hopkins University, and Penn State drew somewhat different conclusions. That survey included 1,200 Indian American participants, about half of whom said they were Hindu.

About 5 percent of respondents in 2020 said they had been discriminated against on the basis of caste in the previous 12 months. Significantly more people said they’d faced discrimination on the basis of skin color, gender, or religion. Fifty-three percent of Hindu Indian Americans in the survey didn’t identify with a caste group at all, though most of those respondents still knew the caste identities of their Indian friends.

In their report, the Carnegie researchers questioned the results of the Equality Labs survey because it wasn’t “based on a representative sample.”

The founder and executive director of Equality Labs has spoken out about her own experience with caste-based discrimination as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. “To be honest, the level of discrimination and harassment that you face as a caste-oppressed student, particularly if you were out — which I was — was too much,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan said during an April panel discussion sponsored by the California Faculty Association.

Soundararajan has stood by the results of the Equality Labs survey, and said about 40 universities across the country are considering adding caste to their nondiscrimination policies. She was recently disinvited from giving a talk to Google employees after some South Asian employees accused her of sowing division and being anti-Hindu, even though she has given talks at Adobe, Airbnb, Microsoft, Netflix, and Salesforce.

Campus officials at institutions that have banned caste discrimination, including Brandeis University and Colby College, have said they didn’t act in response to a particular incident involving caste but wanted to get out in front of the issue before it became a problem.

Legal Implications

In 2020, Pariyar advocated for Cal State-East Bay’s social-work department to add caste as a protected category in its mission statement.

Over the following months, faculty and student leaders across the state took notice. The Cal State Student Association voted to include caste in its antidiscrimination policy in the spring of 2021. Then the California Faculty Association, the system’s faculty union, voted to add caste protections to the association’s collective-bargaining agreement.

In January, the Cal State Board of Trustees voted to ratify the faculty agreement and to codify caste as a protected category. In institutional policy, it’s been added as a parenthetical after “race or ethnicity.”

Sinha and other professors are considering suing Cal State over the policy. Since they started speaking out, Sinha said he and other professors have been targeted online.

Sinha said he used to be chair of his college’s retention, tenure, and promotion committee. If he were still in that role and was the only person of South Asian descent on the committee, and an Indian professor came up for tenure, he said, he could be accused of caste discrimination if that person filed a complaint. But no one else could be accused of that.

“We make tough decisions in these committees,” Sinha said. “If I vote negative, I could be taken to task — that ‘his vote was based on this caste, which is a protected category,’ whereas all other faculty would be totally immune from that particular allegation.”

Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation and a lawyer, believes the professors have a compelling argument.

Other nondiscrimination categories, like race, gender, and religion, are facially neutral, Shukla said, while caste is specific to people of South Asian descent. “When a category like caste is added to a campus policy — for instance, like it has been at CSU — you’ve kind of diverged from the longstanding legal principle of having categories that don’t single out one group,” she said.

If allegations involving discrimination based on caste cropped up, that could be adjudicated under existing university policies, Shukla said.

Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the Cal State system, said university officials believed that the system’s previous antidiscrimination policy already covered caste. But officials wanted to make that fact clear to the campus community.

“Such a clarification would seem especially warranted when community members express a reluctance to come forward and make formal complaints,” he wrote in an email.

Pariyar praised Cal State officials and faculty members for listening to his concerns and taking action. He said other universities were now inviting him to campus to share his story, and he hopes that’s a sign that more institutions will add caste protections in the near future.

The professors who are fighting the change seem to be stuck in a “colonial mind-set,” Pariyar said. “They are not ready to recognize caste-oppressed people within the South Asian system.” —Sarah Brown

Clarification: Our May 31 Race on Campus newsletter originally named Washington and Lee University among colleges that continue to require students to pass a swim test. Washington and Lee faculty members voted in April to end the swim test as part of changes in the general-education curriculum. The change will take effect in a couple of years; in the meantime, students will be continue to be required to take the test.

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