Posted on February 11, 2022

Colleges and Universities Across the US Are Moving to Ban Caste Discrimination

Harmeet Kaur, CNN, January 30, 2022

On paper, the change was subtle — the word “caste” appearing in parentheses after the term “race and ethnicity.”

But for many advocates and student leaders, the tweak to California State University’s anti-discrimination policy that quietly went into effect on January 1 was a civil rights victory: An acknowledgment from the nation’s largest, four-year public university system that the insidious form of oppression that has long haunted some on campus is, in fact, real.

Caste-oppressed students, who mostly hail from South Asian immigrant and diaspora backgrounds, say that casteism tends to manifest in US colleges and universities through slurs, microaggressions and social exclusion. But because these dynamics play out within these minority communities, most other Americans have little understanding of how they operate — leaving these students, many of whom refer to themselves as Dalits, without recourse.

The move by Cal State, which came after nearly two years of student organizing, stands to change that. By explicitly mentioning caste in its anti-discrimination policy, Cal State has made it a protected status, thereby prohibiting caste-based discrimination, harassment or retaliation. For a university system with more than 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff members, that could have significant implications.


Though the caste system and caste-based discrimination have been legally outlawed in India and other South Asian countries, its legacy persists in cultural and systemic ways, extending beyond Hinduism and India to other South Asian religions and regions. And as South Asians migrate across continents and oceans, they often bring caste with them.

That was the experience for Pariyar, who is a Dalit Hindu and moved to the US from Nepal in 2015 in part, he said, to escape caste oppression. He said his family faced discrimination and violence from dominant caste Nepalis both because of their caste and their outspokenness on such injustices. By coming to the US, Pariyar assumed he would be leaving that all behind.

“I thought at that time that now I don’t have to experience caste discrimination because the US is different. In the US, the South Asian diaspora, including the Nepali diaspora, are educated … so they don’t believe in caste discrimination,” he said. “But I was wrong. Totally wrong.”

Caste seemed to follow Pariyar even in California. Unlike other Dalits he encountered in the US, Pariyar didn’t hide his last name, which gave away his caste identity. But he said he found that his transparency colored his interactions with caste-privileged Nepalis. {snip}


When the California State Student Association met in April 2021 to discuss a resolution calling for a ban on caste discrimination, several people pushed back against it.

The opponents, who included alumni, professors and community members, argued that discussions about caste unnecessarily divided South Asians and that caste discrimination no longer existed. They claimed that caste was a construct of British colonialism, even though it had existed for millennia, and insisted that the resolution would instead provoke hate against Hindus on campus.

Krystal Raynes, a student at Cal State Bakersfield who currently serves as a CSU student trustee, wasn’t familiar with caste and caste-based discrimination before that meeting. But the language and line of reasoning she heard that day rang familiar.

“It reminded me so much of the discrimination happening against Black people in America,” she said. “Black students being gaslighted, [being told] your experience isn’t discrimination, your experience isn’t oppression.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Dalit rights organization Equality Labs, likened the gaslighting, denial and misinformation around frank discussions of caste oppression to the conservative campaign against “critical race theory,” which has since become a catch-all term for any instruction around the history of racism in the US.


In the end, despite the dissenting voices, the California State Student Association passed the resolution calling on the university system to ban caste discrimination. Cal State’s faculty union showed its support by including caste as a protected category in its collective bargaining agreement. And ultimately, Cal State added caste protections for its students and employees.


Cal State’s move to make caste a protected category is the latest in a growing movement at US colleges and universities.

In the last few months, the University of California, Davis, Harvard University and Colby College all added caste to their non-discrimination policies, while Brandeis University set an early example by doing so in 2019. And since the development at Cal State, Soundararajan said that the phones at Equality Labs “have been going off the hook” with other universities seeking to make the same changes.

At Colby College, efforts are now shifting to how its policy might be put into action. Sonja Thomas, who spearheaded the effort to secure caste protections there, said she wants to get caste added to the school’s bias reporting and prevention system.

“We need to take the second step, which is then implement policies for people to recognize when it’s happening so that there’s recourse for people who might be affected by caste discrimination,” said Thomas, who is also an associate professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Colby.

Outside academia, two ongoing legal battles have brought attention to the ways casteism functions in the US.

In 2020, California authorities filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against a Dalit engineer. (Cisco has denied the allegations and said it would “vigorously defend itself.”) And last year, a federal lawsuit alleged that a prominent Hindu sect lured hundreds of caste-oppressed workers to the US to work on temples for low pay and under dangerous conditions. (The organization’s leaders denied wrongdoing and called the workers “volunteers.”)

And in addition to universities, the California Democratic Party and prominent labor unions — such as the Alphabet Workers Union — have come out in support of caste protections.