Waltham, Massachusetts-based Brandeis University possibly became the first U.S. college or university to expressly prohibit caste discrimination when its president announced that the university will now include caste in its nondiscrimination policy.
“Brandeis believes that since caste identity is so intertwined with many legally recognized and protected characteristics, discrimination based on a person’s caste is effectively the same,” said Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz.
Students, faculty or staff who experience discrimination based on caste will be able to report to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, using the same process available to anyone experiencing discrimination based on other federally designated statuses also identified in the university’s policy.
The university stated that caste is a more than 3,000-year-old system of inherited social stratification, most common in South Asia but also occurring in other parts of the world. In caste systems, it added, “individuals are born into rigid societal roles that even today limit economic and social equality and mobility.”
“Caste discrimination is not visible to most Americans, but it can have a significant impact on the lives and careers of individuals from South Asia who are born into lower-caste social categories,” said Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer and vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Brandeis. “There is no law against caste discrimination in the United States, but as a university that strives to be inclusive to all, Brandeis has opted to prohibit discrimination based on caste within its community.”
Laurence Simon, professor of international development and director of the Center for Global Development and Sustainability at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis, has been researching caste as part of his scholarship for 40 years and is launching a new open-source journal called CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion. Simon said that students sometimes feel the need to hide their caste identities out of concern that revealing them would have negative impacts for their social lives and future careers.
“As Brandeis has engaged in more scholarship around caste and issues of social exclusion, we began to look at our own community,” he said. “In talking with students and staff, it became clear we should find a way to help any current or future community members who may be discriminated against due to their lower-status caste.”
A committee of six Brandeis students, faculty and staff members spent a year reviewing caste-related research inside and outside of higher education for guidance on how to proceed, said the university, adding, committee members also gathered evidence that caste concerns existed on campus. At the conclusion of this process, the committee wrote a report to the Brandeis administration urging that the campus’ non-discrimination policy include caste in its list of protected categories.
Through Simon’s scholarship, the university noted in a press release, it has become increasingly active in and recognized by the Dalit community in the U.S. and beyond. In 2017, the Boston Study Group, a non-profit dedicated to a just and equitable society, donated a bust of Indian civil rights leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in tribute to the work of Brandeis’ Center for Global Development and Sustainability for advancing academic scholarship on the issues of caste. Brandeis recently honored two young scholars from India with the university’s new academic prize for early-career scholars on caste.