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Is There An American Caste System?

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Recently, I read an excellent book by Professor Uma Narayan called Dislocating Cultures, in which she compares how dowry-deaths in India are of high interest in the West whereas spousal-killings in America are not given the same emphasis, despite that fact that statistically the percentage of American women victims of spousal killings are at least as high as the percentage of Indian women victimized by dowry-deaths. She explains that this dichotomy and disconnect of understanding involves various factors: The language of ‘dowry-deaths’ is so India-specific, to begin with, that it precludes the equivalent American phenomenon to be within range of the radar.

Once thus framed, the issue of dowry-deaths then gets measured, studied at various levels of scholarship, and gets a life of its own. America’s equivalent problems get exempted from examination, especially as the scholars place themselves on a platform above the glass ceiling. This made me wonder whether caste is a somewhat similar phenomenon. After all, every society has strata and ethnic groups. In modern America, we call these ‘demographic segments’ — there are demographic segments such as ‘inner city African Americans’, ‘rural Hispanics’, ‘suburban whites’, ‘Asian immigrants’, etc. and these are common terms in consumer marketing. I wonder how different these are from India’s much studied castes. Yet, people give funny looks when the term ‘caste’ is suggested pertaining to America.

The book The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen gives an interesting insight into how the demographic group we now call’white’ emerged. He writes: “[Until the 17th century, the] white skin privilege was recognized neither in the law nor in the social practices of the labor classes. But by the early decades of the eighteenth century, racial oppression would be the norm in the plantation colonies, and African Americans would continue to suffer under its yoke for more than two centuries…African bond-laborers were turned into chattel slaves and were differentiated from their fellow proletarians of European origin. Rocked by the solidarity across racial lines exhibited by the rebellious laboring classes in the wake of the famous Bacon’s Rebellion, the plantation bourgeoisie sought a solution to its labor problems in the creation of a buffer control stratum of poor whites, who enjoyed little enough privilege in colonial society beyond that of their skin color, which protected them from enslavement…Such was the invention of the white race.”

America’s color-coding was based on the category of labor that one was placed into. This is further elaborated in the book How the Irish Became White, written by Noel Ignatiev, a lecturer at Harvard. He describes how the Irish, who were branded for centuries as the underclass in Europe, came to America and used the labor color-coding system of the American society to get reclassified as the white class. Especially in places where the slaves had been freed, it became important for European immigrant groups to make sure that they were distinguished and protected through labor unions that were racially exclusivist. Blacks often became factory workers in large centralized environments, whereas construction jobs such as plumbing, electrical, masonry, and carpentry became the turf of specific European ethnic labor unions.

Another useful book is How the Jews Became White Folks, authored by Professor Karen Brodkin at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Jewish woman herself, she tells the story of how the Jews started this climb up the caste ladder of America just fifty years ago to reach their present position, mainly by taking control of specific professions.

Caste systems in India evolved, just as they have done in the US, as a labor group by the kind of work. This is why each of India’s castes corresponds to a category of labor, much like the modern guild of American workers of a given profession, with its own procedures for membership and strategies to compete with outsiders. In India, this segmentation got perpetuated because training was done through work apprenticeship under one’s parents, thereby turning family lineages into specialized labor.

Perhaps, ancient rulers found it easier to negotiate with a given category of labor collectively, much like the British created the landowner class (zamindars) in India as a more efficient way to maximize the collection of taxes. Most law firms in the US are owned by Jewish families; most motels are owned by Gujaratis from India; and this kind of list goes on. Communities evolve towards centers of skill, excellence, and specialized assets. Bush and Gore are both political dynasties.

Language is just another quality passed on this way to the next generation, especially as it entails learning at home from a young age. Pronunciation, accent, idiom, sophistication in usage, and reference to prior literature with authority, all require great mastery of language. Over time, certain language styles become prized as belonging to’high’ society. The way one speaks becomes a marker of social status. In modern times, where one’s works get published depends largely upon one’s language skill, and determines one’s standing. The currency of language was Sanskrit in ancient India and it is English in the modern world. Just as Sanskrit usage was caste-related in India, English is turning into a device for caste hierarchy around the world today.

A key difference is that in India, caste became explicitly codified, whereas in America social structure by ethnicity or family lineage remains uncodified and subliminal. But what is commonly not pointed out today is that India’s smritis (codified rules) pertaining to many topics including caste, were meant to be specific to a given time, place and cultural context and not intended as universal ‘commandments’ for all people at all times. They were more akin to a specific European king’s laws in a given kingdom. Naturally, there were hundreds of smritis made by different people at different times, covering various aspects of social life. Manysmritis contradicted others and/or superceded others, just as one would find among the myriad of codified laws across medieval Europe.

The advantage of the uncodified, invisible and often denied phenomenon of the American caste system is that it does not become cast (excuse the pun) in concrete. Rather, the lack of rules make it porous and not impermeable, and open to change over time rather than static. On the other hand, something subliminal rather than explicit is more dangerous as it gets applied arbitrarily. Also, since most people who use it, deny its very existence, it becomes difficult to have an honest debate on it so as to modify it. This is the situation in America today. I wish American academicians teaching about India would examine their own students to see how India’s social structures resemble modern America’s.

My experience has been that India’s caste discussions are locked into a ‘South Asian’ contained context, and that most well educated Americans have a blind spot about their own caste system. Using the same terminology forces the comparison.

Note that ‘caste’ is not a term indigenous to India, because the term jati is more akin to community. ‘Caste’ is a term introduced by the colonialists and deserves to be re-examined. Would India’s affirmative action be better off defined in terms of underprivileged labor classes and demographic communities, permitting and even encouraging migration across them, as opposed to remaining in terms of static caste boundaries that are assumed to be genetic?

Understanding this American caste system has important implications for Asian Americans. Indians have traditionally been too introverted and due to that, have not studied the rest of the world. But the dynamics of the West are important to understand, even to deepen one’s understanding of oneself. The field of academic scholarship and teaching of Hinduism is dominated by Jews and Christians. Indians have been content to be portrayed by others, and yet complain later when the portrayal begins to play out in society — be it in the form of peer pressure facing their own kids growing up in the West, or as public opinion shaped by Marxists of Indian origin, or in the form of aggressive proselytizing back in India.

East Asia has managed its branding in America much more actively. Thanks to over thirty endowed Japan Studies chairs in USA, to The Asia Society, and to millions of dollars spent annually for teacher training in America on how to teach about Japan, the Japanese Americans are ahead of other Asians in their climb up this caste ladder. Notice how the Japan bashing that was characteristic of the early 1980s has mysteriously disappeared from the media. China is second among Asian countries in this climb, having started only 15 years ago to negotiate their way in America.

Indian Americans are doing well in the high tech/professional caste as individuals. There is also the caste of Indian’intellectuals’ who write popular and serious books with great command of the English language, small in number but large in visibility. Often, this latter category has its training in the use of Western and/or Marxist metaphor, as India’s own English medium education system subverted the teaching of India’s classics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata – and of Sanskrit. These young Indians often shy away from too much linkage with their own heritage, preferring to classify themselves as ‘South Asian’ after leaving their parents’ home.

The Hindu identity is still largely outcast in America or subverted in many instances. Media, education and public images of Hinduism are often dominated by negative stereotypes. Hence, most Indians have multiple identities, bringing out the one that works best in a given situation. A Hindu who worships at home in front of a Hindu deity and socializes with other Indian friends in very ethnic settings, often erases every sign of such linkage when he goes to work each day. Post-colonialists have written about a phenomenon called ‘brown shame’ that was encouraged amongst Indians by the British as a way to dominate Indians. But nobody has brought out the more recent phenomenon that I call ‘Hindu shame’. To be openly Hindu is often seen as a matter of shame, as was the case with Jews in Europe in the early 20th century. This demonizing has worsened in the past five years and Hindus are now concerned about being branded ‘fascist’, ‘extremist’, ‘fundamentalist’, or as some other negative ‘ism’ or ‘ist’ depending upon the particular writer’s toolbox.

Either Hindus are described as world negating, based on narrow interpretations of select textual passages, i.e. shown as having little or no interest in the affairs of the world, as a sort of mystical escapism. Or, if they are acknowledged as socially engaged, and hence not world negating, they are often depicted as abusing women and poor, and generally backward in social practices. So Hinduism is not seen as having the resources within itself to be progressive in a socially responsible manner, the way the ‘rational’ West is seen to have.

This new Hindu American caste needs to learn from the successes of other American castes noted above. This is especially important as the population of Indians in America is projected to increase to ten million by 2050, and there shall also be many non-Indians who continue to adopt Hinduism.

Published: 2001