UC Davis Quietly Added Caste to Its Anti-Discrimination Policy. Will It Cause Others to Do the Same?
Shwanika Narayan, San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2021
For J. Kaur, a UC Davis senior of Indian descent, it started with insulting memes casually dropped into her group chats. For one of her schoolmates, it was overhearing South Asian students ask each other what caste they belonged to before picking roommates.
The experiences inspired Kaur and her schoolmate to spend months working behind the scenes with other students to get their university to officially recognize caste — a millennia-old concept that assigns people their social statuses at birth — as a source of discrimination on the Northern California campus.
That effort culminated in September, when UC Davis became potentially the first public institution in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. The move places the university on the ground floor of a rising movement to confront caste discrimination, a lesser-known form of oppression present in American society, and one that is largely imported from South Asia.
Those who speak out against it risk various forms of retaliation, both for themselves and relatives back home.
“The quiet pain and the suffering students face because of caste discrimination will no longer be the case,” said Kaur’s schoolmate, who is of Indian descent and graduated from UC Davis this summer. “That is what’s defining this moment.”
Estimated to be thousands of years old, caste is rooted in India’s Hindu scriptures but can now be found in practice in multiple countries and religions. Involving the rigid categorization of people into so-called “upper” and “lower” castes, activists have replaced these value-based descriptors with “dominant” and “oppressed” to address the inherent power dynamics.
Caste is not easily discernible by looking at a person, but can be detected from last names, the village or town a person comes from, and from their religious and social practices.
“This structure of oppression affects hundreds of millions of South Asians today, and over 5.4 million South Asian Americans in the U.S.,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. “This exclusionary system ranks people at birth with one’s caste determining every aspect of their life.”
Formerly referred to as “untouchables,” Dalit is the term for people who sit outside the caste system and are considered to be on the lowest rung of the social order.
In the U.S., caste discrimination primarily shows up in educational and professional settings. But its core tenet — labor, or the exploitation of it — periodically resurfaces.
Brandeis University in Massachusetts was the first college in the U.S. to make caste a protected category in 2019. Under UC Davis’ amended policy, students or staff who face discrimination or harassment for their perceived castes can file complaints that could result in formal investigations.
The university made this possible by placing caste under national origin, which is a legally protected category under federal education and state employment law. Whether it is in fact illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of caste could be tested in state court as the California Department of Employment and Fair Housing pursues an anti-caste-discrimination lawsuit against the San Jose-based IT company Cisco.
“The significance of adding caste … is it ensures that the communities most impacted and most vulnerable to this type of discrimination or harassment know that the university recognizes the harm caused,” Danésha Nichols, director of UC Davis’ Harassment & Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program, said in an email.