University of California, Davis includes caste in discrimination policy

Ritu Jha-


When a group of the University of California, Davis students approached the school’s Harassment & Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program department to discuss “caste-based discrimination.” the school took it seriously. Within a year, that was added to the school policy as well, making it the first public university in the US to add caste to its anti-discriminatory policy.

In August, the California Democratic Party amended its bylaws at the CDP’s executive board meeting hand designated “caste” a protected category.

That many Indian Americans don’t see caste as a factor came to the surface after an Indian American Cisco employee filed a lawsuit in the Santa Clara County Superior Court against his Indian American superiors.

When indica reached to, Danésha Nichols, director of UC Davis’ Harassment & Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program at the university, she denied that the change in policy was in response to any specific complaint.

“We did hear from a committed group of student advocates who wanted to elevate this issue and discuss concrete steps that the university could take toward diminishing caste-based discrimination and harassment,” Nichols said.

She added that program officials met with the group, discussed their experiences and those of their peers, colleagues, friends, and families, and brainstormed ways the university could support this community.

“These students helped HDAPP connect with Equality Labs, so we could better educate ourselves on caste-based discrimination,” Nichols said. Equality Labs is a Dalit civil rights organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, white supremacy and religious intolerance.

“From that point, we moved forward with making the policy changes and updating our educational materials to spread the word to the broader UC Davis community,” Nichols added.  “Also, our campus DEI [Diversity, Equality and Inclusion] unit is integrating information about this addition in their relevant classes.”

She said that UC Davis has been working on this issue since February 2021.

“We were in the process of doing our standard updates to our local nondiscrimination policy and thought this would be a great opportunity to make it clear that our policy prohibited discrimination on the basis of caste,” Nichols said. The policy already covered and prohibited caste-based discrimination, but only as part of prohibitions against discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, ancestry and national origin.

“Also, our Faculty Code of Conduct prohibits “arbitrary” discrimination, which would cover any form of discrimination that is not based on legitimate academic or business reasons,” Nichols said. “But without a specific reference to this in policy, we realized we were missing an opportunity to educate our community about this important matter and to make clear that this type of discrimination was prohibited.”

This issue had been championed by Chair of Religious Studies Dr. Archana Venkatesan, as well as student and staff leaders from the Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian (MENASA) Student Resources unit. The policy was updated and finalized in September 2021.

“We received a great deal of support from campus leadership to make this addition to the policy,” Nichols said. 

Asked about the process involved in reporting harassment based on caste, Nichols said it could be reported like all forms of discrimination: by phone, email, online, in person, or anonymously, also providing a link to report incidents.

Nichols could not discuss how other UC campuses addressed caste discrimination.

“While I do not know for sure, I believe discrimination on the basis of caste is prohibited at all UCs,” she said. “UC Davis is the first to make this explicitly clear in our non-discrimination policies.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director, Equality Labs, commended the change in the university policy.

In her statement, Soundararajan said: “The courage of the UC Davis intercaste coalition is inspiring. These leaders have worked tirelessly to make this win happen while also supporting students experiencing caste discrimination. These students represent the future of our communities, and we need to follow their lead as they create American institutions that are caste-equitable for all. We congratulate UC Davis for standing on the right side of this issue and look forward to the campus implementing this policy for the betterment of all of our communities.”

According to Equality Labs, along with Colby College and Brandeis University, UC Davis joins universities across the nation in supporting students, faculty, and staff, in the face of rampant caste-based discrimination. The decision could impact more than 40,000 students at UC Davis, and the hundreds of thousands of community members who live in the Davis-Sacramento region, it said.

As J Kaur, a student leader quoted by Equality Labs, put it, “I have experienced casteism all my life, and never expected to face it at Davis. During my undergraduate career, I have faced many microaggressions related to caste, especially in South Asian and Sikh spaces. This decision makes the campus a safe place again. That matters so much. I hope this protection encourages more caste-oppressed students to come forward and know that our lives are precious, and we deserve a seat at the table free from violence and discrimination.”

[Photo courtesy: UC Davis]