In the US, inequality tends to be framed as an issue of either class, race, or both. Consider, for example, criticism that Republicans’ new tax planis a weapon of “class warfare,” or accusations that the recent US government shutdown was racist.
As an India-born novelist and scholar who teaches in the US, I have come to see America’s stratified society through a different lens: caste.
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 US really so different?
What is caste?
I first realised 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 stigmatised 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 BR 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 marginalised Americans experience.
Is America casteist?
In Houston, that sense of profound exclusion emerged in most post-presentation discussions about caste.
As children, the students there noted, they had grown up in segregated urban neighborhoods—geographic exclusion that, I would add, was federal policy for most of the 20th century. Many took on unpayable student loan debts for college, then struggled to stay in school while juggling work and family pressures, often without a support system.
Several students also contrasted their cramped downtown campus—with its parking problems, limited dining options, and lack of after-hours cultural life—with the university’s swankier main digs. Others would point out the jail across from the University of Houston-Downtown with bleak humor, invoking the school-to-prison pipeline.
Both the faculty and the students knew the power of social networks that are essential to professional success. Yet even with a college degree, evidence shows, Americans who grow up poor are almost guaranteed to earn less.