In the United States, inequality tends to be framed as an issue of either class, race or both. Consider, for example, criticism that Republicans’ new tax plan is a weapon of “class warfare,” or accusations that the recent U.S. government shutdown was racist.
Many Americans would be appalled to think that anything like caste could exist in a country allegedly founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After all, India’s atrocious caste system determines social status by birth, compels marriage within a community and restricts job opportunity.
But is the U.S. really so different?
What is caste?
I first realized that caste could shed a new light on American inequality in 2016, when I was scholar-in-residence at the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown.
There, I found that my public presentations on caste resonated deeply with students, who were largely working-class, black and Latino. I believe that’s because two key characteristics differentiate caste from race and class.
First, caste cannot be transcended. Unlike class, people of the “low” Mahar caste cannot educate or earn their way out of being Mahar. No matter how elite their college or how lucrative their careers, those born into a low caste remain stigmatized for life.
Caste is also always hierarchical: As long as it exists, so does the division of people into “high” and “low.” That distinguishes it from race, in that people in a caste system cannot dream of equality.
It’s significant that the great mid-20th-century Indian reformer B. R. Ambedkar called not for learning to “live together as brothers and sisters,” as Martin Luther King Jr. did, but for the very “annihilation of caste.”
Caste, in other words, is societal difference made timeless, inevitable and cureless. Caste says to its subjects, “You all are different and unequal and fated to remain so.”
Neither race nor class nor race and class combined can so efficiently encapsulate the kind of of social hierarchy, prejudice and inequality that marginalized Americans experience.
Is America casteist?
In Houston, that sense of profound exclusion emerged in most post-presentation discussions about caste.