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Inside the movement to ban caste discrimination across the US

ABC News

(LOS ANGELES) — Some South Asians, many miles away from their homes, say they are suffering from experiences with discrimination that dates back to thousands of years.

From job rejections to unsupported marriages, they claim that severe harassment from the caste system crossed over into America and has gone unchecked.

“When we talk about our personal experience, people don’t believe me,” Prem Paariyar, a Nepalese immigrant who said he was discriminated against because of his caste both back home and in the U.S., told ABC News Live. “Not just my experience, our experience.”

But state and local leaders on the West Coast are seeking to address the issue with legislation that anti-caste advocates say could help curb this inequality.

The caste system started as a social construct created over 3,000 years ago in South Asia. People are born into distinct groups, that came with their own social hierarchy and political and economic status, according to Anupama Rao, a history professor at Columbia University.

Brahmins, or ritual specialists on top are considered the top caste, followed by the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, then the Waishyas, which was the caste that represented farmers, traders or merchants, and finally the Shudras, who are also known as the “untouchables.”

Rao told ABC News that members of Shudras were forced to do the worst kind of jobs including hauling caucuses and excrement. She said they are sometimes referred to as Dalit, which is a term of militant self-identification, that means ground down, broken, crushed.

“Caste operates as an engine of social hierarchy and as a form of political and economic inequality,” she said.

Although the Indian government banned caste discrimination in 1948, it has still existed culturally, according to Rao.

“The ways in which caste operates is subtle and not so subtle,” she said. “People trying to figure out what your caste is through your last name, people being very interested in knowing about your cultural and social practices, all trying to get a sense of ways in which you can cut into somebody’s caste identity.”

Alok Kumbhare said he has faced discrimination all of his life because of his name and caste. He remembered a music teacher in India discouraged him from learning music after learning his name as a child.

Kumbhare held back tears recalling a former landlord in India who harassed him over his caste and told him, ” You stink up the toilet too much, I should’ve made you clean and that’s what you’re good for.”

“This implicit notion of superiority and inferiority creeps in all the time,” the married father of one told ABC News Live.

Paariyar said his family was brutally attacked in Nepal by members of a dominant caste and he fled to the U.S. seeking political asylum.

When he arrived in America, however, Paariyar said that his harassment didn’t go away.

After getting a job at a restaurant, Paariyar said he was denied housing that those workers typically used because they were all part of the dominant caste.

“After a month, I was homeless…I was in a van,” he said.

Pariyar would eventually graduate from California State University with a degree in social work, and spearheaded efforts to end caste discrimination on campus.

Some South Asian Americans said that the discrimination is strong even in bigger organizations and groups.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a South Asian-American activist, and the executive director of Equality Labs, told ABC News that she was originally invited to speak at Google about caste bias but her invitation was rescinded after some employees complained.

“I had a Google V.P. news manager tell me, ‘Well, you know, caste is not a protected category,’ and that’s just me as a speaker imagining what they’re telling to workers,” Soundararajan said.

She said that after the incident, she had to live in a safe house because of threats.

Google claimed in a statement to ABC News, “In this instance, there was specific conduct, and internal posts, that made employees feel targeted and retaliated against for raising concerns about a proposed talk. We made the decision not to move forward.”

“Caste discrimination has no place in our workplace and it’s prohibited in our policies. We have long hosted a variety of constructive conversations with external guests on these sorts of topics,” the company said in a statement.

Soundararajan and other anti-caste advocates have long been calling on the government to address the issue and recently local leaders have been pushing legislation that bans caste discrimination.

In February, Seattle became the first major city outside of South Asia to ban caste discrimination.

On May 11, the California state Senate passed SB 403 which would make caste a protected category in California’s anti-discrimination laws. The law is working its way through the state Assembly.

“As our state becomes more diverse, our laws need to go further and deeper in communities and tackle the issues that matter to them,” State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the lead sponsor of the bill, told ABC News Live.

The bill, however, was met with resistance from some South Asians who contend that caste discrimination isn’t as prevalent as some others claim.

Puspita Prasad, a member of the group The Coalition of Hindus of North America which has opposed SB 403 and Seattle’s law, told ABC News Live, the nature of the legislation is discriminatory

“We object to this word caste. The word caste is in the Western lexicon. It’s a Hindu phobic term. It is not a neutral term,” Prasad said.

Rao acknowledged that most people associate the term caste with the Hindu religion but said “caste and caste-like differences and exclusions are also in evidence in Muslim and Christian communities across South Asia.”

Alok and other anti-caste advocates say the Seattle and California movements are positive signs that people are becoming cognizant of the issue and are willing to make change to end the cycle of discrimination.

“This ordinance is all about hope,” he said of the Seattle legislation. “It will create this ripple effect [that] can create a more inclusive environment,” he said.

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