Caste & racism stick out in survey of Indian Americans

RITU JHA

Indians in America regularly encounter racism. Roughly half of all Hindu Indian Americans identify with a caste group. Indian Americans mostly marry within their community. Religion plays a central role in their lives. Most do not believe that “Indian American” is the term that best captures their background.

These are among the key findings of the “Social Realities of Indian Americans: Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey,” which was released on Wednesday, June 9.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur of Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, are the authors of the report.

The report is the third of a series that is part of a collaboration between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS and the University of Pennsylvania.

The 63-page report is based on a survey of 1,200 Indian Americans conducted between September 1 and September 20, 2020, in partnership with the research and analytics firm YouGov.

The report focused on five broad areas: citizenship and residency status; educational attainment; marital status; Indian region of origin; and religion, religious practice, and caste identity.

Asked about the objective of the report, Vaishnav told indica News: “This is a community that is now more than 4 million strong, yet we know very little about the basics of who they are and how they live. We felt that a study just laying out the facts was well past due — not as part of a broader study that looks at all Asian American communities, but in its own terms.”

The survey reveals that one in two Indian Americans talked about being discriminated against in the past one year, with discrimination based on skin color identified as the most common form of bias. The report says that those born in the US are much more likely to report being victims of discrimination than their foreign-born counterparts.

The report also touches upon the controversial topic of caste in America, which has hit mainstream headlines ever since California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems last year after an employee from one of India’s historically marginalized caste communities, Dalits, alleged that some of his upper-caste Indian-American colleagues discriminated against him.

According to the survey report, those born outside the US are significantly more likely than US-born respondents to espouse a caste identity. The overwhelming majority of Hindus with a caste identity —more than eight in 10 — self-identify as belonging to the category of “general” — upper caste.

Does that mean caste is prevalent among the Indian disapsora in the US?

We did not set out to say caste is still prevalent in the diaspora,” Vaishnav replied. “Frankly, we had no prior expectations on this score. We merely wanted to ask the question and see how people responded.”

He said: “Of course, we were prompted to do so by the resurfacing of this issue in recent lawsuits, media articles, and community discussion. So, what did we do? We asked first if respondents possessed a caste identity and, if so, what it was? We also asked them questions about whether their social circles were drawn from people from their own caste and whether they felt they were discriminated against on their basis of caste.”

Did the answers surprise them? “We really had no baseline to compare our findings to,” Vaishnav said. “We came into this project not knowing what to expect or what we would find.”

He said: “Here’s what we learned. First, we found that roughly 50 percent of Hindu Indian Americans espoused a caste identity, and roughly 80 percent of those individuals classified themselves as general or upper caste. Second, we found that while Indian Americans do socialize with people of their own caste, they are much more likely to associate with people of their same religion and, secondly, from their same region in India. Third, we found that about 5 percent of our entire sample of 1,200 adults of Indian origin experienced some form of caste discrimination in the past twelve months.”

The report states that polarization among Indian Americans reflects broader trends in American society. While religious polarization is less pronounced at an individual level, partisan polarization — linked to political preferences both in India and the United States — is rife.

However, this polarization is asymmetric: Democrats are much less comfortable having close friends who are Republicans than the converse. The same is true of Congress party supporters vis-à-vis supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Asked what he had learned after three reports on the Indian-American community, Vaishnav said it’s hard to summarize across three big reports, but outlined three takeaways.

First, the Indian American community exhibits many of the divisions that mark American society as a whole,” he said. “In some ways, this is to be expected — this is true of all immigrant communities to a certain extent. After all, they are part of American social life. Second, the polarization which is affecting Indian politics does spill over to the diaspora in the US to a certain extent. In particular, religion does seem to divide the diaspora in terms of how they view changes underway back home in India.”

He added: “Third, the ties that bind Indian Americans to India are very strong, and this is even true of the second generation born and raised in the United States. They may not have the same direct connections to the ‘motherland’ as their parents but they are connected to it through cultural, personal, and other means.”

[Photograph on top used for purely representational purpose]

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