By Aashna Rao
Associate Editor, Vol. 26
As the U.S.’s South Asian immigrant population continues to grow, scholars across disciplines and cultures have attempted to reckon with the concept of caste-based discrimination in America.[i] Lawyers and authors alike have tried to draw parallels between caste and race, perhaps in an attempt to squeeze the still-unfamiliar social dilemma of casteism into the better-understood framework of American racism.[ii] Black and South Asian organizers have often recognized the common ground in their fights against racism and casteism.[iii] Still, some critics have not taken well to heavy-handed caste-race analogies—many argue such analogies prohibit meaningful examination of either concept.[iv] This blog looks at the treatment of caste discrimination in the U.S. in a recent California lawsuit as well as in author Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book.
This summer, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Silicon Valley-based Cisco Systems, Inc. and two of its supervisors for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment Housing Act.[v] The lawsuit alleged that supervisors at Cisco discriminated against and harassed a third Cisco employee, John Doe, due to the latter’s caste. [vi] The suit further alleged that Cisco failed to take any steps to address this discrimination, despite complaints from John Doe.[vii]
The caste system stems from a centuries-old social hierarchy and classification system originating in ancient India and reinforced in the modern era by white colonizers that invaded South Asia.[viii] Under this system, Indians were divided into a number of groups based on status, perceived purity, and occupation.[ix] One’s caste is inherited from the family one is born into and cannot be changed.[x] The Dalit caste, previously known as the “Untouchables,” is thought to be the lowest.[xi] Although India formally abolished discrimination based on caste in the 1950s, Dalits still experience ostracization, violence, and systemic inequality both in India and in South Asian diaspora communities abroad.[xii]
In the Cisco case, the three employees worked on the same team, comprised entirely of Indian nationals.[xiii] While the two supervisors and other team members come from higher castes, John Doe is a member of the Dalit caste.[xiv] DFEH alleges the supervisors forced Doe to accept less pay, fewer opportunities, and less desirable assignments because of his caste status.[xv] The complaint claims this discrimination was based in part on Doe’s race and skin color (among other qualities like his religion and ancestry).[xvi] Academics and attorneys explain this is one hook by which the complainant might try to secure protection under Title VII in this novel case, since neither federal law nor California state law explicitly include caste as a protected category.[xvii] Historian and professor Anupama Rao notes this approach is not entirely faithful, however, to South Asians’ understanding of caste. In an interview with Bloomberg Law, Rao states, “The claim of color discrimination isn’t congruent with caste discrimination…The caste system doesn’t operate based on color—but the lawsuit tries to maneuver within the confines of the American legal system.”[xviii]
This case touches upon a contentious and long-standing theoretical issue—the extent to which caste and race can be analogized or treated interchangeably, particularly in modern America. This discussion was reanimated this year by the release of Isabel Wilkerson’s popular book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. In it, Wilkerson argues for an understanding of “America’s enduring resistance to Black equality through the prism of the caste system of India.”[xix] Wilkerson advances the notion that the caste system—a method which creates structure through use of “neutral human differences, skin color among them”—is the foundation of racism in America;[xx] “Caste is the bones, race the skin,” Wilkerson writes.[xxi] She aims to move the conversation about the causes of inequality from the realm of subjective feelings, like the hatred often associated with racism, to the more objective structure of a caste system of “unthinking expectations [and] patterns of a social order.”[xxii]
However, both American and South Asian scholars have taken issue with Wilkerson’s analysis. Several writers note Wilkerson, in placing such great emphasis on status alone as definitive of social structure, entirely glosses over the intertwining of race, class, and capitalism; many understand the connection between these three concepts to be integral to the development of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in the U.S.[xxiii] Wilkerson dismisses the work of prominent Black radical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox, who—counter to dominant belief in the mid-1900s—dedicated his career to “fighting the ahistorical vision of race as caste, a view that he felt stripped America’s racial antagonisms of their specific frames of reference.”[xxiv] According to Cox, caste theorists fall into the trap of dividing all white people and all Black people into two antagonistic groups, which has only ever benefitted “the exploiters of labor” in America by pitting poor Black people against poor whites.[xxv] Regardless of whether one agrees with Wilkerson or Cox, it is hard to miss the glaring absence in Caste of any meaningful discussion of how poverty and income level impact status within and across racial groups.
At the same time, several South Asian scholars feel analogizing caste and race too closely misrepresents both the historical origins of the system and the violent realities Dalit Indians face today.[xxvi] Indian-American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai explains the caste system began as a sort of organizational cosmology that developed over millennia, which is markedly different than the “creation of whiteness as a category of domination” in colonial America.[xxvii] Dalit journalist Yashica Dutt also describes feeling excluded from the narrative while reading Caste. Dutt writes, “Wilkerson appears to give in to the idea of American exceptionalism and centers Western narratives while failing to dig into the continued brutalization of Dalits…in India.”[xxviii] This critique mirrors the sentiment captured by Rao’s analysis of the Cisco case and the complainant’s claim of color discrimination—it appears, in order to appeal to American institutions and audiences, realities about caste structures and relations are not infrequently warped. Skin color is conflated with caste status for the sake of legal argument and centuries of Indian history are collapsed to serve as a launching point for discussion of American racism.
The Cisco suit will hopefully reveal important insights about how our legal system might approach the issue of caste discrimination in the future. For thousands of Dalit South Asians in the U.S., this case could be instrumental in securing rights under state or federal law. In the meantime, however, we ought to think critically about how we conceive of caste in America. Does it serve as a helpful lens of legal and theoretical analysis for modern racism? Or does insistence on its interconnection with race reduce both Black and South Asian history into harmfully overgeneralized narratives? As we reckon with cases of caste-based discrimination, we must continue to ask whether our analyses remain faithful to the realities of historically oppressed groups.
[i] Sonia Paul, When Caste Discrimination Comes To The United States, NPR (Apr. 25, 2018), https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/04/25/605030018/when-caste-discrimination-comes-to-the-united-states.
[ii] See e.g., Paige Smith, Caste Bias Lawsuit Against Cisco Tests Rare Workplace Claim, Bloomberg L. (Jul. 17, 2020), https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/caste-bias-lawsuit-against-cisco-tests-rare-workplace-claim.
[iii] Paul, supra note 1.
[iv] See e.g., Vipul Tripathi, Caste and Race: Two sides of the same coin?, Reuters (May 29, 2009), http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2009/05/29/caste-and-race-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/; Sunil Khilnani, Isabel Wilkerson’s World-Historical Theory of Race and Caste, New Yorker (Aug. 17, 2020), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/17/isabel-wilkersons-world-historical-theory-of-race-and-caste.
[v] Cal. Dep’t of Fair Emp. & Housing, DFEH Sues Cisco Systems, Inc. And Former Managers For Caste-Based Discrimination (2020), https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2020/06/Cisco_2020.06.30.pdf.
[viii] Equality Labs, Caste in The United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans 9 (2018), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58347d04bebafbb1e66df84c/t/5d9b4f9afbaef569c0a5c132/1570459664518/Caste_report_2018.pdf.
[ix] Human Rights Watch, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/caste0801-03.htm (last visited Oct. 18, 2020).
[xiii] Daniel Wiessner, Case to Watch: Cisco lawsuit tests anti-bias laws’ application to Indian caste system, Reuters Legal (Jul. 30, 2020),https://today.westlaw.com/Document/Ia28d9d10d25e11ea85dce8228c52478f/View/FullText.html?transitionType=SearchItem&contextData=(sc.Search)&firstPage=true.
[xv] DFEH Sues Cisco, supra note 5.
[xvi] Smith, supra note 2.
[xix] Kwame Anthony Appiah, What Do America’s Racial Problems Have in Common With India and Nazi Germany?, N.Y. Times (Aug. 4, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/books/review/caste-isabel-wilkerson.html.
[xx] Khilnani, supra note 4.
[xxi] Dwight Garner, Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin, N.Y. Times (last updated Aug. 3, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/books/review-caste-isabel-wilkerson-origins-of-our-discontents.html.
[xxii] Khilnani, supra note 4.
[xxiii] See e.g., Khilnani, supra note 4; Kwame, supra note 19; see also Andray Domise (@AndrayDomise), Twitter (Oct. 14, 2020, 2:32 PM), https://twitter.com/andraydomise/status/1316446749003780099.
[xxiv] Todd Cronan, Oliver Cromwell Cox and the Capitalist Sources of Racism, JACOBIN (Sept. 5, 2020), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/09/oliver-cromwell-cox-race-class-caste.
[xxvi] See Arjun Appadurai, Comparing Race to Caste Is an Interesting Idea, But There Are Crucial Differences Between Both, The Wire (Sept. 12, 2020), https://thewire.in/books/book-review-isabel-wilkerson-caste-racism-america; Yashica Dutt, Feeling Like an Outcast, Foreign Policy (Sept. 17, 2020), https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/17/caste-book-india-dalit-outcast-wilkerson-review/.
[xxvii] Appadurai, supra note 26.
[xxviii] Dutt, supra note 26.