Until six months ago, I had never considered that Indian immigrants had imported the caste system to the United States. That was when a senior reporter at the public radio station where I work as a senior editor in Boston told me he wanted to do a series on caste in America. He cited a few examples of discrimination he’d heard about. I endorsed the proposed series as a fine idea. As African-Americans, we both see the clear parallels between race and caste.
Last week, that reporter and I were astonished to find ourselves at a forum, inside a church near Harvard University, where an activist group of Dalit Americans unveiled a survey titled, ‘Caste in the United States’. The reporter has yet to hear back about his grant proposal to fund his series, but he’s the kind of journalist who gathers string for ambitious stories. He was there with his microphone, recorder and questions.
The first of its kind, the survey found that the caste system had indeed penetrated south Asian life in America, appearing to confirm the reporter’s story idea. I was intrigued because caste was a theme of my coverage of India as a foreign correspondent two decades ago. But was the survey valid?
After I sat down in the room crowded mostly with young people of different races and devoured a couple of samosas, the first thing I did was review the methodology in an appendix to the 49-page report. The sample size was 1,200, more than sufficient for a national survey in the United States.
The venerable Gallup polls rely on national samples of 1,000, for instance. In India, a country four times as populous, samples need to be larger, but 1,200 was big enough for the United States.
The limitation on the Equity Labs survey conducted online is how the sample was drawn. It was not a random sample. The authors did broad outreach through their contacts and other south Asian organisations to obtain a sizeable but self-selected sample.
The authors appear to recognise the survey’s limitations; they do not report a margin of error. It would be prohibitively expensive, if not virtually impossible, to conduct a random survey of Dalits and low-caste south Asians in America, given their small percentage in the overall population of 300 million.
That said, the survey stands as a preliminary, impressionistic picture of casteism operating in the United States. A recurrent theme in the findings is the shunning of a people once called “untouchables” at workplaces, schools, romantic relationships and houses of worship.
Two-thirds of the Dalit respondents, for example, said they had experienced “caste discrimination” where they had worked —perpetrated by other people of south Asian descent. Not surprisingly, just over half the Dalits reported they were doing what African-Americans would call “passing”, hiding their caste identity.
Caste bias has survived in America, despite the country’s egalitarian creed, because immigrant communities of all kinds can and do retain some of their traditional practices. Civil rights laws do not explicitly ban discrimination based on caste. It was not seen as an issue in America when those laws were written.
Most specific examples cited in the report were about acts of personal prejudice, not the kind of institutional discrimination that would be vulnerable to a legal challenge under such laws. But other examples described the effects of a “hostile environment” at workplaces or schools, which would be covered under civil rights laws. And physical assaults mentioned in the report could be classified as “hate crimes”.
A couple of findings did surprise me. Nearly half the Dalits have postgraduate degrees, compared to about a quarter of Brahmins. I would have expected something like the reverse.
The reason appears to be related to India’s reservations: Three-quarters of Dalits said they had benefitted from affirmative action in their countries of origin. India’s leadership class might want to contemplate why so many Dalits were taking their reservation-enabled educations and leaving, perhaps never to return.
The survey report’s authors, Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, make modest recommendations that American institutions raise awareness about caste bias in their ranks. Colleges are asked to add caste to their anti-hazing and anti-bullying policies, and religious institutions are advised to establish reporting and monitoring procedures to root out caste prejudice.
A bolder approach would be to call for caste to be added to national and state civil rights laws that bar discrimination on specific grounds, along with race, sex, religion, colour, national origin and, in some cases, sexual orientation.
That addition would be harder to achieve and would require increased awareness of casteism as a first step anyway. The US Congress passed the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964, after all, only once a media-savvy movement swayed public opinion.
(Kenneth J. Cooper, a senior editor at WGBH in Boston, was south Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post from 1996 to 1999.)