Debate as California State bans caste discrimination

Amid support for policy shift, some professors question why South Asians are being singled out

February 7, 2022
Chico, California - July 9, 2019 The California State University Chico, also known as Chico State, was built in 1887. It is 90 miles north of Sacramento.
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When Prem Pariyar moved from his home in Nepal to the US in 2015, he expected a reprieve from the discrimination and violence he and his family experienced in Nepal because of their caste status.

Mr Pariyar is a Dalit, a member of the group historically known as “untouchables”, who have endured social and economic discrimination for thousands of years. Caste, the system of social hierarchy determined by birth, is illegal in India and other South Asian countries but still exists in practice, impacting participation in everything from marriage to meal sharing.

Mr Pariyar chose not to hide his last name, unlike many other Dalits in the US, which gave his caste away to those familiar with the system. He found himself ostracised in the US, unable to serve himself or enter the kitchen at gatherings because others thought he would spoil the food, he said.

The discrimination continued when he enrolled in the social work graduate programme at California State University, East Bay, in 2019. Once, while waiting at a transit station, he introduced himself to two Nepali students, who immediately snubbed him after discovering his last name. And in classroom discussions about the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, he was shocked to find caste was not a part of the conversation.

“I was experiencing discrimination within the university and outside the university at the community level,” Mr Pariyar said. “My ancestors, my dad, my mom, my grandparents, for generations have been experiencing caste discrimination…and there was no conversation about that.”

Mr Pariyar began advocating for the addition of caste as a protected category in the CSU system’s non-discrimination policy. He started with the social work programme at East Bay, gaining supporters and allies until they eventually persuaded the department to update its mission statement to include caste.

Then Mr Pariyar worked with the academic senate’s faculty diversity and equity committee at East Bay to, last February, pass a resolution adding caste as a protected class in the campus non-discrimination policy. The campaign caught on; student governments from other CSU campuses posted their own resolutions, including those at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

In April, the Cal State Student Association, which represents all students in the CSU system, also passed a resolution supporting the addition of caste as a protected category in the entire university system. Additionally, Cal State’s faculty union included caste as a protected category in its collective bargaining agreement last year.

On 1 January, California State University, which has 23 campuses and educates more than 485​,000 students every year, became the first university system to add caste to its non-discrimination policy.

“I am moved by the stories from Dalit students and the bravery they exhibited in the face of oppressive action, and I knew that California State University had to recognise these harms towards its own student body,” said Krystal Raynes, an undergraduate at California State University, Bakersfield and the student representative on the board of trustees, who supported the move. “I thank these student leaders for educating all of us in California higher education about this important civil rights issue and allowing me to be a part of their movement at CSU and making a lasting mark on the statewide institution’s anti-discrimination policy.”

Last week, the California State University board of trustees voted to add caste as a protected category to the non-discrimination clause for all contracted employees under the California Faculty Association collective bargaining agreement. Mr Pariyar and other supporters, including Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisation, collected the signatures of more than 500 faculty members in support of caste protections.

CSU joins several other institutions that include caste in their non-discrimination policies, including Brandeis UniversityColby College and the University of California, Davis. Experts say it could lead more institutions to follow suit.

Manmit Singh, a San Francisco State University master’s student who worked alongside Mr Pariyar to get the CSU resolution passed, is a self-described “caste-privileged Sikh” who became involved with the movement after attending a political education workshop through Mr Pariyar and Equality Labs on unlearning caste supremacy.

Mr Singh, who uses they/them pronouns, said they hoped adding caste to the non-discrimination policy would open the door to bigger changes across the CSU system, such as collecting data on caste discrimination and creating guidelines for caste-oppressed students.

“That small recognition has taken so long, so much fighting and so much advocacy on the part of students, staff and faculty,” Mr Singh said. “There is hope that the CSU administration is listening to students, staff and faculty voices, and for all the work that is yet to come.”

For Mr Pariyar, the addition of caste to the university’s non-discrimination policy is a historic win that can help educate others.

“Adding caste as a protected category is very useful, because some say, ‘This is a South Asian or an Indian problem,’” Mr Pariyar said. “Wherever South Asians, Indians, go, caste discrimination travels…This is not an Indian problem. This is a global problem.”

While more than 500 faculty members supported adding caste to the system’s collective bargaining agreement with faculty, at least 80 faculty members opposed the move. In a letter to the board of trustees, they wrote that it “will cause more discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent”.

Praveen Sinha, professor of accountancy at California State University, Long Beach and one of several organisers who signed the letter, said that his biggest concern is that caste is not “facially neutral”, since caste is only used within South Asian countries. He said other non-discrimination protections for race or religion apply more broadly to multiple races and religions, while caste would only apply to South Asians.

“It pretty much puts us in a targeted category that ‘these are different people,’” said Professor Sinha. “And I think that federally it’s prohibited.”

He believes caste is covered by the existing non-discrimination policy protections, which include ethnicity, ancestry, country of origin and language. The letter states that adding caste to the non-discrimination policy will cause discrimination by “unconstitutionally singling out” Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent and provoke hate against Hindus on campus.

Sinha also expressed concern about how the decision to add caste was made. The letter notes that the California Faculty Association could not answer how many faculty members of Indian or South Asian descent were consulted before the decision was made or reveal how many cases of alleged caste-based discrimination had ever been filed within the CSU system.

Professor Sinha said the California Faculty Association used data from an Equality Labs report titled Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans to make its argument to add caste protections, but he had never heard of caste discrimination on a California State University campus.

He pointed to a study from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which noted that the sample size from Equality Labs’ survey probably “does not fully represent the South Asian American population and could skew in favour of those who have strong views about caste”. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report found that out of 1,200 Indian American residents, 5 per cent of foreign-born and 6 per cent of US-born respondents said that they personally felt discriminated against within the past year because of their caste status.

“If there is no evidence, and we are getting it from a very tainted organisation, then we are making a very huge decision, which is not protecting anybody, but putting a lot of us who are South Asian at potential harm’s way in a suspect category,” Professor Sinha said.

The letter says that faculty members find themselves “the unfair target of a discriminatory policy that is being justified on the basis of racist stereotypes and that too in the absence of any evidence and without fair hearing”.

Professor Sinha believes that the addition of caste to the non-discrimination policy could be challenged in a court of law, and he said if someone else files a lawsuit, he would be a part of it.

“I’ve talked to various lawyers, and they said that if some policy of discrimination is not facially neutral, it is going to be problematic to pass the test of law,” Professor Sinha said.

However, he said he does not expect staff to push too hard against adding caste to the non-discrimination policy, since they all have to continue teaching.

“I do understand that we have a moral obligation to protect everyone on campus, no ifs and buts about it,” Professor Sinha said. “But I think this will be a good lesson for anybody; we teach that in economics and policy classes, when you make any societal decision, look at what is the evidence for it. Just a few vocal voices should not be the basis for a decision.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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