US’s caste equality advocates to persist
“We need to educate everyone so that this system will be stopped,” he told DW. “We are isolated from generation to generation. There is intergenerational trauma.”
California’s governor vetoed a historic bill to add caste as a protected category, but efforts to recognize discrimination in the United States continue to pick up steam. When Prem Pariyar arrived in the US from Nepal in 2015, he didn’t expect that he would be sleeping in a van or on couches in employee housing due to his caste affiliation.
“I thought caste discrimination does not exist here. I was very depressed,” Pariyar told DW. Pariyar, a descendant of a family in the Hindu Dalit caste, sometimes referred to discriminatingly as the “Untouchables”, is one of many South Asian advocates pushing forward efforts to legally recognize caste discrimination in the US.
While caste is commonly referred to in the context of Hinduism and India, it is a social hierarchy system that is thousands of years old and recognized in several countries across the region, including Nepal, where Pariyar grew up. “We need to educate everyone so that this system will be stopped,” he told DW. “We are isolated from generation to generation. There is intergenerational trauma.”
Pariyar decided to come to the US after his family was violently attacked because of their caste in the middle of the night in their home in the capital, Kathmandu. When he tried to file charges against the assailant, the authorities did nothing, and even threatened him for taking action. He proceeded to find a job at a restaurant in the US, where his employer offered to house him. However, his colleagues in the house wouldn’t share a room with him, making casteist claims and slurs. So, he slept on the couch, instead.
Pariyar, who is now on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter, said his story is not unique. While he had hoped to leave this form of discrimination behind in Nepal, he said he and several others have faced significant hurdles in employment and even safety upon coming to the US. There are over 5.4 million South Asians in the US, with the majority concentrated in California. They are one of the largest growing demographic groups in the country, with many people coming to work in the tech industry in California’s Silicon Valley.
Many US-based Dalits say the system of discrimination has followed them, resulting in harassment, sabotage in the workplace and even violence. In recent years, activists have united under new groups such as the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition and Equality Labs, which were both instrumental in the push for legal recognition.
Last month, following over a year of advocacy and a month-long hunger strike, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 403, which would have made the state the first to include caste in the list of protected classes under civil rights laws. The bill would have offered employment and housing protections alongside categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation.
However, despite an overwhelming majority (31-5 in the Senate), Newsom called the bill “unnecessary,” saying that protections against caste-based discrimination are covered legally under already existing protections that “shall be liberally construed.” The veto created an uproar on both sides of the South Asian community, spurring rallies at the capitol, lobbying lines through hallways, and a hunger strike in favour of the bill. Those opposing the bill, such as the Hindu American Foundation, called it both racist and a potential “constitutional disaster,” which would have “put a target on hundreds of thousands of Californians simply because of their ethnicity or racial identity.”