HomeCampusCal State becomes 1st with caste anti-discrimination policy

Cal State becomes 1st with caste anti-discrimination policy

In a landmark decision, the California State University (CSU) system has included caste in its anti-discrimination policy, marking a major victory for Dalit students and organizers.

The CSU system’s official policy language now includes “color, caste, or ancestry” under the Protected Status of “Race or Ethnicity.” According to American Kahani, the CSU system, which is the largest public university system in the US, is the first system to institute anti-casteism in official policy.

According to Equality Labs, a national Dalit civil rights organization based in the U.S., the caste system is a societal hierarchy that determines an individual’s social standing and “spiritual purity,” with higher-born groups in higher paying careers, resources, and status. As a result, those born into a low caste—such as the Dalits, the lowest caste level that was formerly referred to as “untouchables”—can face significant discrimination in society.

This is a reality for many South Asian Dalits in the US. A report by Equality Labs found that 67% of Dalits face discrimination in the workforce, 59% experienced casteist jokes and slurs, and 26% faced physical assault in the United States. These issues especially extend to education: 41% of Dalit students faced discrimination in school, compared to an average of 3.25% of students from the other four caste groups.

Many Dalit students in the CSU system had similarly felt discriminated against. Anti-caste community organizer M. Bangar, who told the San Diego Union Tribune he uses a pseudonym out of safety concerns said that “California universities have a casteism problem.”

“As a Dalit student, I did not feel safe disclosing my caste and had to hide this in shame while caste-privileged students and faculty made disrespectful casteist remarks against my people and my ancestors,” Bangar told Equality Labs. “I felt unwelcome, unsafe, and excluded from important opportunities.”

These sentiments were echoed by other students, such as Dalit Social work student and activist Prem Pariyar, who felt “disappointed and low” after experiencing caste discrimination at CSU East Bay.

“I thought I had left caste discrimination behind in Nepal. But I was wrong,” Pariyar said. “I have been experiencing caste discrimination in every sphere of my life even in the US.”

The discrimination Dalit students experienced at CSU was a major motivator for them to mobilize and advocate for their rights, as casteism has not been recognized in many American institutions. Within higher education in particular, only few institutions, including UC Davis, Colby College, Brandeis University, and Harvard, have included caste protections in official policy.

The fight for caste protections in the CSU system in particular was driven by an inter-caste, interfaith coalition of students, staff, and faculty alike, who were lead by feminist Dalit activists. According to American Kahani, these efforts lead to a resolution adopted by Associated Students, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s student body, to add caste in anti-discriminatory policy specifically. The movement spread to the Academic Senate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and East Bay, before reaching the California Faculty Association and the California State Student Association, where it eventually became official university policy.

These victories were hard fought. Student activists faced a significant, and sometimes violent, push back that challenged their beliefs in the feasibility of caste becoming a protected category. In a statement for Equality Labs, Manmit Singh, a student and organizer at San Francisco State University, recalled the “gaslighting, misinformation, and blunt casteism” that was used to stop the movement. An open forum at the California State Student Association, he recalls, lasted for over 2 hours as non-CSU affiliates joined the call to fight against caste protection.

These barriers made the need for caste protections explicitly clear. Students and organizers, like Pariyar, recognize the importance of official anti-discriminatory policy in allowing lower caste students to get redress and support for casteism.

“Many caste-oppressed students, faculty, and staff members at CSU campuses will now feel safer and report any incident of harassment or discrimination by the dominant caste students and co-workers,” Pariyar said.

However, as Pariyar says, “This recognition is huge but not enough.” As he observes, the fight to end casteism is far from over, and a deeper commitment from the university system is necessary. These intervention may include trainings and curriculums to raise awareness on campus, allocating funds for research on caste, invest in the careers of caste-oppressed students, and leadership hired from “caste-oppressed backgrounds.”

Still, the inclusion of caste in anti-discriminatory policy shows that, despite doubts, oppositions, and hardships, the fight to protect Dalit students is necessary and achievable.

“I always struggled to believe that accountability against casteism was feasible in such a violent climate,” Bangar told Equality Labs. “However, the CSU system has shown that accountability is not only feasible but also vital in protecting students that attend any of the CSU campuses.”

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