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South Asian Americans Speak Out Against Caste Oppression in U.S.

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Groups projected their support for survivors of caste-based violence on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2015. (Thenmozi Soundararajan)
Groups projected their support for survivors of caste-based violence on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2015. (Thenmozi Soundararajan)
September 10, 2020

By Thenmozi Soundararajan
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter
Reporting for the YES! Media-California News Service Collaboration

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As a summer of protests over racial discrimination comes to a close, South Asian groups are fighting for recognition of a similar phenomenon: discrimination based on caste.

Caste apartheid is a centuries-old system of oppression common in India and surrounding regions that divides people into five categories ranging from the favored Brahmin caste down to the Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.

Thenmozi Soundararajan, executive director and founder of the Dalit civil-rights group Equality Labs recently published an op-ed in Yes! Magazine on the hatred that affects five million South Asian Americans.

"We have been seeing many people in caste-oppressed communities struggling with violence and discrimination and slurs. And we left behind our homeland to escape caste apartheid, and so to see it rear its ugly head here is intolerable and also against the law," Soundararajan said.

In June, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing launched a civil-rights case, alleging the tech company Cisco failed to protect a Dalit employee who suffered slurs and lost promotions when his caste status became known.

A study on caste discrimination commissioned by Equality Labs found that here in the U.S., one in four Dalits has suffered physical violence. One in three has encountered discrimination in school, and two out of three have felt it at the office.

Soundararajan said it's time for caste to be recognized as a protected civil-rights category within companies and at the local, state and federal level.

"This is a very significant moment in this new terrain of civil rights because we are seeing caste-oppressed Americans all across the United States asking for protections," Soundararajan said.

Advocates also are calling on Senator and vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who is from the Brahmin caste, to denounce caste-based discrimination.

This story was produced with original reporting from Thenmozi Soundararajan for Yes! Media.

Disclosure: YES! Media contributes to our fund for reporting on Human Rights/Racial Justice, Native American Issues, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Suzanne Potter/Derrick Hinds, Public News Service - CA