Explained | How is U.S. tackling discrimination on campuses?

What is the new policy to shield against caste bias? Why do some groups disagree with the move?

The story so far: The California Faculty Association (CFA) this month added caste criteria into its anti-discrimination policies, a move that was subsequently ratified by the Board of Trustees of the California State University system. The move by the CFA and the CSU comes after months of sustained campaigning by Dalit right activists, who brought evidence to the university authorities on the broad and deep impact of caste discrimination on U.S. college campuses. The inclusion of protection from caste discrimination in the CSU system was met by sharp criticism from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which disagreed on the need for protection from caste discrimination as a separate category.

Is caste discrimination a concern in U.S. universities?

Evidence provided by Dalit and other minority rights activists suggests that it is, and a growing number of U.S. universities have apparently found such evidence to be compelling enough to pass regulations to protect students and teachers from facing caste discrimination on campus. These include Harvard University, which became the first Ivy League university to recognise caste-based discrimination as an issue of concern, when it ratified, in December 2021, a four-year contract that includes a provision for the addition of caste as a “protected category” for all graduate and undergraduate student workers at the university. Similarly, in October 2021, the privately-run Colby College in Maine banned caste-based discrimination on its campus.

That followed action taken by Brandeis University, Massachusetts, in November 2019, when it said that even though caste is not an officially recognised “protected class” within U.S. federal law or state laws, “The university believes that caste identity is so inextricably intertwined with those legally recognised protected characteristics that discrimination based on one’s caste is effectively discrimination based on an amalgamation of legally protected characteristics. Therefore, the university prohibits discrimination and harassment based on caste, effective immediately.”

A key organisation spearheading the campaign against caste discrimination in U.S. universities is Equality Labs. Its Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan hailed the recent development in California, saying, “This win is historic. The Cal State system is one of the largest in the United States and because of the tireless efforts of the student-led interfaith and inter-caste initiative we now have 23 new campuses which are joining the civil rights movement to protect caste-oppressed Americans.”

Does caste discrimination have any wider ramifications?

It would certainly appear that America has a more generalised ‘caste problem’ — cases of alleged or proven discrimination that go well beyond the U.S. education system. For example, in June 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a legal case against Silicon Valley’s Cisco Systems and two of its former officials for discriminating against a Dalit engineer based on the latter’s caste. Equality Labs says that shortly after this case became known, it began to receive similar complaints of caste-based discrimination at other tech firms, including Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft — from 260 U.S. tech workers over a span of three weeks. According to Ms. Soundararajan, the complaints included “slurs and jokes, bullying, discriminatory hiring practices, bias in peer reviews and sexual harassment”. Subsequent reports in the U.S. media cited a group of 30 female Indian engineers, all Dalits, and working for Google, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies, saying they had faced caste bias in the U.S. tech sector.

What was the HAF’s objection to caste discrimination protection?

Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director of HAF, said in response to the action by the California State University system, “CFA and CSU leadership need to answer why, in the absence of evidence, due diligence, or consultation with some 600 faculty of Indian or South Asian origin who will be directly implicated by this new policy, they added it when existing policies already offer protection for any complaints of caste discrimination under categories such as national origin or ancestry.” However, the argument of Dalit and minority rights activists is that so long as caste is not included in U.S. federal law as a protected category in the context of discrimination, caste discrimination within South Asian communities will proliferate even as such communities at a broad level are sometimes victims of generalised racism.

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