How Indians took caste to the US that was already in the grip of ‘casteist’ bias

The Hindu caste system may be unique to the subcontinent, but American race relations have always had some eerie parallels to it; and now, as Ambedkar predicted, caste is an American problem too

Seattle caste resolution, caste in America, US caste system, race relations, Equality Labs
Supporters of the ordinance endorse the fight to ban caste discrimination in Seattle | Pic: Twitter/Kshama Sawant

BR Ambedkar famously wrote in his Castes In India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development (1917), “…as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”

More than a century later, Ambedkar’s prophesy seems to have come true, with Seattle becoming the first US city to prohibit caste discrimination when its local council on Wednesday (February 22) passed a resolution to add caste to its non-discrimination policy. With India being one of the top countries to send emigrants to the US, the caste issue coming to the fore in American society was only a matter of time.

“American caste system” then

Yet, it may come as surprise that caste-based discrimination is so deep-rooted in the US that it requires administrative steps to combat it. Isn’t the Hindu caste system the very antithesis of the American dream? While the Hindu caste system is marked by a rigid finality — you cannot change the caste you are born into, no matter what you do and how far you go in life — the “American dream” essentially embodies equal opportunity for all.


However, the concept of the “American dream” does not apply equally to all Americans. The US society may not have an institutionalised caste system as in the subcontinent, but its race relations have eerie parallels to the Indian caste system, as noticed as early as 1960 by American anthropologist Gerald D Berreman.

Also read: Seattle City resolution seeking ban on caste discrimination sparks heated debates

Berreman wrote in the abstract to his Caste in India and the United States published in the American Journal of Sociology, “Comparison of race relations in the southern United States and relations between the untouchables and other castes in India demonstrates that the two systems are closely similar in operation despite differences of content. Low-caste status in India, as in America, is actively resented.”

“American caste system” now

Nearly 60 years later, Subramanian Shankar, professor of English (Postcolonial Literature and Creative Writing) at the University of Hawaii, wrote in an article for The Conversation in 2018, “Neither race nor class nor race and class combined can so efficiently encapsulate the kind of social hierarchy, prejudice and inequality that marginalized Americans experience.”

Prof. Shankar has also identified several parallels between the US and India. “At bottom, caste’s most defining feature is its ability to render inevitable a rigid and pervasive hierarchical system of inclusion and exclusion,” he wrote in The Conversation. “What working-class Americans and people of color have viscerally recognized, in my experience, is that casteist ideologies — theories that produce a social hierarchy and then freeze it for time immemorial — also permeate their world.”

Also read: Madhya Pradesh: At least 14 injured in caste clashes over entry into temple on Shivaratri

Incidentally, white supremacists or nativists espouse beliefs that are marked by as much a rigid finality as the Hindu caste system. Only, in this case, it is about a race or a class and not about any category (originally professional) as in the Hindu caste system.

The South Asian import

The brain behind the anti-caste discrimination resolution in Seattle is Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization that has been leading a nationwide campaign on the topic. Its report Caste in the United States, based on a survey conducted in 2016, presents “the first evidence of caste discrimination in the US.” According to the organisation, “It also provides insight into how the South Asian community balances the experiences of living under white supremacy while replicating Caste, anti-Dalitness, and anti-Blackness.”

The Equality Labs survey revealed some shocking details. “…caste has been found where ever South Asian migrants go. In the United States many caste-oppressed migrant communities … are finding that caste has replicated itself in South Asian community, religious, and business institutions. This has led many shocking experiences of caste discrimination in the United States that includes physical assault, verbal slurs, and discrimination in schools, businesses, and work places,” claims the organisation.

Also read: Seven students, two college staff arrested over casteist skit in Bengaluru

According to data collated by Equality Labs, 25% of the Dalits who responded to its survey said they had suffered caste-based verbal or physical assault; one in three Dalit students had been discriminated against during education; two out of three Dalits had been treated unfairly in the workplace; 60% reported being subjected to caste-based derogatory jokes or comments; 40% Dalits and 14% Shudra respondents were made to feel unwelcome at their place of worship; 20% of Dalits reported feeling discriminated against at a place of business; and over 40% Dalits reported being rejected in a romantic relationship because of their caste. Finally, half of Dalit respondents and a quarter of Shudra respondents said they lived in fear of their caste being “outed”.

The Seattle resolution

It is believed that the Seattle resolution may have far-reaching implications on the issue of caste discrimination in the US. That is because it speaks not only about the discrimination faced by Dalits but also Americans of colour in general. In fact, Ambedkar reportedly identified the parallels between the plights of India’s Dalits and African Americans and exchanged letters with American civil rights activist WEB Du Bois in the 1940s.

However, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which had campaigned against the resolution, believes that the resolution will compound the problem rather than solving it. It believes the move will institutionalise bias against all Americans of South Asian origin.

Also read: RSS chief champions equality of all, dignity of labour; says priests created castes

Its fears stem from the exact racial “casteism” that has been elaborated above. Seattle Council member Sara Nelson, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the resolution, agreed with the opponents that the ordinance could be “a reckless, harmful solution to a problem for which we have no data or research”.

“This could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians,” she said, voicing the Hindu dissenters.

(With agency inputs)