This winter, the University of Michigan’s Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office added language to its website that explicitly prohibits caste-based harassment and discrimination under the University’s Non-Discrimination policy and provided a mechanism to report such incidents.
In doing so, U-M joins a growing list of institutions such as Brandeis University, Brown University, University of California, Davis, and the California State University system that have included caste in their campuswide non-discrimination and harassment policy.
Notably, such efforts to explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination have not been limited only to colleges and institutions of higher education. Apple Inc. has explicitly prohibited caste-based discrimination, and this past February, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance to identify caste as a protected class under its Human Rights Code. In addition, a bill was introduced in March this year in the California State Senate to recognize caste as a protected category.
Understanding and incorporating caste as a category of discrimination requires clarity on what caste means. Caste is a system of graded inequality built on endogamy and exclusionary practices that strip individuals and communities of basic human dignity.
Caste affiliations and caste-based harassment and discriminatory practices are a feature of social life in South Asia, including among Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in every country of the region, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Most countries of the region have laws that distinguish caste-based discrimination from religious and ethnic discrimination.
Caste defies the frameworks of race, religion or ethnicity and thus poses a unique challenge to those unfamiliar with its functioning. Caste affiliations frequently remain significant in diasporic South Asian communities, and caste-based micro-aggressions and overt discrimination have been reported in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
For example, in 2020 the California Department for Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against the software company Cisco Systems over the allegations of caste-based discrimination. Along similar lines, a class action lawsuit was filed in May 2021 against a New Jersey temple run by Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, by individuals from marginalized castes alleging exploitative practices.
At U-M, a resolution to include caste as a protected category was first approved by the Committee on Anti-Racism, a relatively new Faculty Senate committee whose charge includes guiding the Senate Assembly and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) on priorities for university policies that support anti-racism. The resolution was subsequently approved unanimously by SACUA and then passed in the Senate Assembly in 2022.
Silvia Pedraza, professor of sociology and of American culture, and SACUA chair in fall 2022, noted that “discrimination by caste is distinct from discrimination by race and by social class. It serves to marginalize and isolate those who are of lower caste, whose progress is blocked, and it ultimately hurts.”
In response, the ECRT Office has included the following language on its website under the “Civil Rights Discrimination” page: “Caste-based discrimination and/or harassment violates the University’s commitment to ensuring equal opportunity in educational, occupational, and professional advancement, and is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under U-M SPG 201.35 (Non-Discrimination), and under SPG 201.89-1 (Discrimination and Harassment). Instances of caste-based discrimination may be reported using the Discrimination and Harassment Reporting Form.”
We applaud the ECRT Office for recognizing and expressly prohibiting caste-based harassment and discrimination. We also urge the university to begin vigorous efforts to educate our community about caste-based discrimination as part of its mission to support diversity, equity, and inclusion.
However, caste also must be specifically included as a protected category in the university’s Standard Practice Guide. Caste is a distinct phenomenon and caste-based discrimination cannot be thoroughly addressed through other protected categories such as race, religion or ethnicity. Caste-based discrimination must be specifically included in the SPG if we are to realize an equitable university community free of discriminatory and exclusionary behaviors.
— Dinesh Pal is an associate professor of anesthesiology and of molecular and integrative physiology in the Medical School. He also chairs the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Anti-Racism and is a member of the Senate Assembly.
— Manan Desai is an associate professor of American culture and of English language and literature, and is director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program in LSA.
— Madhumita Lahiri is an associate professor of English language and literature in LSA and is a member of the Senate Assembly.
— Matthew Hull is an associate professor of anthropology and is director of the Center for South Asian Studies in LSA.
— Faculty Perspective is provided by The University Record as a forum for U-M faculty representatives to comment on university issues. Opinions presented are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Record or the University of Michigan. Submissions are coordinated through the Faculty Senate Office.