Office of Inclusive Excellence

At the Intersection of Worker Rights & Caste Equity: A Way Forward

May 17, 2022

By Ajit K. Abraham

What is Caste and Why is it a Problem?

Caste, in the South Asian context, is an ancient form of social organization which has its origins in the Indian Sub-continent. Although officially abolished by the Indian constitution in 1950, Caste-based discrimination and violence persists in contemporary India and across the South Asian diaspora. Discriminatory ideologies and culturally restrictive practices such as the stigma of impurity (communal eating and dining) and endogamous marriages (marrying within castes), including labor discrimination continues to be religiously and socially sanctioned in diasporic spaces. There is no single theory on Caste given the variety of nationalities and distinctive and complex histories representative of the region (primarily India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) comprising a population of over a billion or more people with over 5 million South Asians living in the United States.

Caste remains a persistent problem as much as it continues to dehumanize and marginalize the most vulnerable and oppressed in this rigid social hierarchy, the Dalits. The recognition of Caste as a problem particularly as it intersects with our workplace teaching and learning conditions is the first step towards dismantling Caste-based structures and practices. 

Caste as a Protected Social Category

The recent resolution by the California State University (CSU) and California Faculty Association (CFA) to include Caste as a protected social category in their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is historically significant in US higher education, especially considering the CSU is the largest public university system in the country. Many universities have also adopted this position, including Brandeis University, UC Davis, Harvard University, Colby College, Colorado College, among others, who are part of the movement towards ending caste-based discrimination.  This is a constructive and restorative way forward in addressing Caste in US higher education.

Article 16 of the CBA “prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, ancestry, caste, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, marital status, medical condition, military status, nationality, race, religion, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation, sex stereotype, and veteran status.” This resolution is part of a larger struggle to eliminate Caste-based discrimination in the university workplace and educational spaces. It is an intersectional issue where worker rights converge with caste equity and justice for oppressed castes, who continue to face marginalization and discrimination in higher education and beyond. Anti-Caste activists alert us to this fact: “2/3's of Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly in their workplace. And a university is both a site of education and also a site of employment and that's why including the caste discriminations in the (CFA) CBA is so important.” (Panel on Caste, CFA Equity Conference 2022). Recent lawsuits against big tech corporations also highlights the precarity of Dalit and other Caste-oppressed workers who face constant discrimination and harassment. This highlights the fact casteism is pervasive in the United States and globally.

University administrators will also have to be sensitized on these issues as it relates to Caste-discriminatory practices in the workplace. This could be in the form of educational workshops on Caste for administration involved in student services, especially for International students.  Another avenue for education and awareness is to engage campus cultural affinity groups (students and staff) on Caste related issues. 

Caste discrimination exists in the United States. There continues to be some pushback from faculty within the CSU and Hindu advocacy groups who deny Caste is a problem—something to be relegated to the colonial past and which unfairly targets people of South Asian origin in the US. However, their rationale can also be attributed to the model minority myth and the cultural preservation of Caste.  Given these recent shifts, it is imperative to raise critical awareness, sensitization and competency about Caste in our academic discourse and institute effective policies to address Caste-based prejudices and discrimination. While there are some overlapping concerns when comparing Caste with other disadvantaged social categories (race, ethnicity, class and gender), it is important not to conflate these distinctive social categories in any anti-caste, anti-racist, and anti-sexist work moving forward. 

A Way Forward

Anti-caste work is far from over. With an increasing South Asian presence on our campuses, there is an immediate need for more research and data on Caste-based discrimination. Caste must be integrated in our pedagogies and activism for social change. For example, in my courses on philosophy and ethics, students engage Dalit perspectives such as B.R. Ambedkhar in conversation with W.E.B DuBois. Students are able to draw upon these sources to understand the roots of oppression across cultures and histories and make connections to present-day struggles against Caste apartheid and white supremacy. There are many creative and constructive ways to weave Caste into the existing curriculum across disciplines, including at the institutional and policy level. 

 To begin this journey, we are called to be in solidarity with the individuals and organizations demanding recognition and social change, such as Dalit student activists, Equality Labs, CFA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi Caucus & Council for Racial & Social Justice), the Coalition for Asian Justice-Monterey (CAJ), among many other progressive organizations and movements actively involved in the collective struggle for racial and social justice in the CSU and beyond. These community partnerships and engagement will move us closer towards being a truly authentic, inclusive, and just university community.  

For discrimination of Dalit students in the CSU see: