Brown University first bans caste discrimination across the Ivy League campus


Brown University now specifically prohibits caste discrimination and joins a number of US colleges and universities in strengthening protections against a poorly understood, insidious form of oppression.

The university’s governing body voted this fall to include caste as a protected characteristic in its non-discrimination policy, alongside categories such as race, religion, sex and gender identity. It is the first Ivy League institution to add such protections for the broader campus community, including students, faculty and staff, according to advocacy group Equality Labs.

“Previous policies would have protected people affected by caste discrimination,” Sylvia Carey-Butler, vice president of the University for Institutional Justice and Diversity, said in a press release. “But we felt it was important to raise that and explicitly express a position on caste justice.”

The caste system, which originated in ancient India, is a social hierarchy that has historically divided people into groups based on occupation and moral obligation. It evolved over time to assign a degree of “spiritual purity” at birth, which in turn determines everything from a person’s social standing and occupation to what they ate and who they married. At the bottom of this social order, seen as so low that they fall out of the traditional hierarchy and into the worst jobs in society, is a group now calling themselves Dalits.

Although the caste system and caste-based discrimination are prohibited by law in India and other South Asian countries, they continue to manifest themselves in society. Dalits and members of other oppressed castes routinely face challenges both in India and elsewhere. With Indians now representing one of the largest groups of new US immigrants, caste bias and discrimination is becoming a growing problem in the states.

US tech companies, which employ high concentrations of South Asian workers, have grappled with caste issues in recent years, and caste-oppressed students at US colleges and universities have previously told CNN that they deal with insults, microaggression and social abuse on campus faced exclusion because of their caste.

Those outside of South Asian communities often do not understand how this dynamic works as it unfolds within members of the same racial and ethnic group. This has left caste-oppressed people in settings like college campuses with few options to fight back.

Brown’s latest move aims to change that. A group of Brown students worked with administrators to achieve specific caste protections that, according to the university’s press release, “legitimize caste-suppressed experiences and provide a framework for incident reporting.”

“Many caste-oppressed people keep their caste membership a secret for fear of retribution or discrimination,” the students said in a statement. “The new language of the university’s non-discrimination policy provides an opportunity for caste-oppressed students who may be hiding their caste identities to report and address the harm they have suffered.”

The California State University system made caste a protected status earlier this year, while schools like the University of California, Davis; Colby College and Brandeis University have taken similar action. Harvard University introduced caste protections for student employees last year as part of its contract with the Harvard Graduate Student Union.

The moves were announced by Dalit lawyers but also met with opposition from some Hindu organizations. After Cal State outlawed caste discrimination, two professors represented by the Hindu American Foundation filed a lawsuit against the university system, alleging that the policy unfairly targets Hindus and misrepresents their religion.

Despite its origins in Hinduism, the caste system has since spread to other South Asian religious communities. Similar systems also exist in some other parts of the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *