A survey of around 1,500 people of South Asian origin in the United States confirms that Dalits there face various types of caste discrimination in South Asian American institutions. This discrimination ranges from derogatory jokes and slurs to physical violence and sexual assault.

A report of the 2016 survey, titled “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans”, was released on Thursday. It comes months after the California State Board of Education approved changes in 10 textbooks that dilute the role of caste among South Asians and push a Hindu nationalist view of South Asian history.

“While many of us who grow up Dalit American have known that caste discrimination has existed in the United States for a long time, the lack of data and interest from savarna scholars in pursuing this problem led to this being unstudied for a very long time,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, co-author of the report and executive director of Equality Labs, which published the report.

In the survey, around 26% of Dalit respondents said they had faced physical violence because of their caste while 20% reported discrimination at their work places. When it came to religion, 40% were made to feel unwelcome at their places of worship, the report said. And 40% of Dalits said they had been rejected as romantic partners because of their caste. In all, 60% of Dalits reported that they had experienced caste-based derogatory jokes and comments.

“The results of our 2016 survey definitively find that all of the inequalities associated with caste status, ritual purity, and social exclusion have become embedded within all of the major South Asian American institutions,” the report said.

Soundararajan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, who co-authored the report, worked with various Ambedkarite organisations in the United States over eight months to create and disseminate the online survey. The report was released by American philosopher Dr Cornel West, one of the first people to teach BR Ambedkar’s work at Harvard University 20 years ago.

Soundararajan said, “To be honest, we knew the data would be telling, but we did not expect the level of violence that we saw.”

Image: Equality Labs
Image: Equality Labs

The results

The report unpacks the many ways in which caste discrimination functions in the United States.

The 1,500 people who responded to the 47-question survey identified from various castes. “Both [Dalits and Brahmins] have elevated representation in our survey,” the report said. “It is unclear whether the caste distribution in our survey reflects the actual distribution of caste groups of South Asians in the diaspora, or that some groups disproportionately participated.”

People from oppressed castes reported facing discrimination at multiple levels, from interpersonal relationships to work spaces and places of worship.

“In the temple especially, we see caste,” said KN, a respondent. “We are Shetty and thus fall as a Shudra Caste. Iyengars [Brahmins] and children of Iyengars made me feel less ‘cool’… not ‘Hindu’ enough growing up… it even affects marriage prospects! My parents changed our last name growing up.”

One in two Dalits and one in four Shudras reported that they feared their caste identity becoming known. This also led to psychological turmoil, with feelings of guilt and anger at being forced to hide.

When their identity did become known, some respondents reported that they were ostracised. TR, a respondent, spoke of how her school-going daughter was kept away from other children when the mother of one of her school friends, an “upper caste” Hindu, learnt that TR’s family followed Buddhism. “It angered me and it broke my heart that my child had to face the feeling of being an outcaste in the 21st century in the United States!” the report quoted TR as saying.

Caste also appears to be a determinant of economic status in the United States. For instance, almost a third of Dalits and a quarter of Shudras, Vaishyas and Kshatriyas had annual household incomes of less than $25,000 or Rs 16 lakh. But only 13% of Brahmins were in a similar position. At the highest end of the income bracket, 8% of Vaishyas earned $250,000 or Rs 1.6 crore or more, whereas only 2% of Dalits had similar incomes.

However, despite the strong correlation between education and economic status in the United States, as the report noted, there seems to be no similar link among the South Asian diaspora. According to the survey, 49% of Dalits and 40% of Shudras had completed their post-graduate education compared to 26% Brahmins, 35% Kshatriyas and 30% Vaishyas.

“We believe that many Dalits seeking success are seeking success outside of India to try to overcome caste barriers,” the report explained. “Their approach to immigration has been to enter as students, at mostly the graduate and post-graduate levels.”

This might also explain the lower incomes of Dalits and Shudras compared to other caste groups – as students, they would necessarily have lower incomes than Brahmins, 50% of whose families had migrated to the United States 20 years to 50 years ago.

Historical discrimination

Since 2016, the South Asian Histories for All Coalition, a diverse group of academics, students and community members of various nationalities, religions and caste identities, has been lobbying hard with a textbook revision committee in California to acknowledge the existence and prevalence of caste and its related discrimination in books prescribed for the fifth and sixth grades.

The coalition faced a pushback from forward caste Hindu groups, which claimed that caste discrimination was a matter of the past and to speak of it in textbooks today would amount to religious discrimination.

In November, the committee approved changes in textbooks in favour of the latter groups.

Yet, caste discrimination in the United States has been prevalent from the time of the earliest Hindu immigrants from India, according to the survey. For instance, AK Mazumdar, the first South Asian American to be granted citizenship, and Bhagat Singh Thind, a leader of the Punjabi Ghadar movement in the United States that sought to free India from British rule, both identified as “high caste Hindu, of full Indian blood” to differentiate themselves from other Indians and therefore to claim whiteness.

“This survey is an invitation for all South Asians to stop denying this violence and to listen to the voices of Dalits and other caste-oppressed migrant communities and work to end this discrimination once and for all,” said Soundararajan.

The report recommended that action be taken at schools, work places and places of worship to prevent caste-based discrimination and violence.