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'Significant' sites of caste discrimination, exclusion: US workplaces, housing industries

By DB Sagar* 
I was around 6 and a half years old when I went to school. I was one of the lucky ones. I got a new school uniform and you all know how it feels to have a new dress that you want to show to your new friends. But when I went to school, none of that happened.
No one wanted to play with me. My teachers and students called me a ‘kareto’, a word that I had never heard before. They told me not to touch them or any of my classmates when they were eating. ‘And you can never ever touch the water pot’, I was told.
I felt so humiliated that I never wanted to go back to school. To be called an ‘untouchable’, to be called names, to be avoided, insulted and humiliated, can kill the soul. Even the young me could understand that. I am sure that many of you have experienced this before.
But my father would have none of it. He told me that the only way that I could escape the circumstances is through education.
Over the years, I learned that I did not have to be defined by my caste. Yet, I have also learned that escaping my caste is not all that easy. In fact, I am here, with you – because while I have escaped the poverty of my birth nation, I have not managed to escape the deprivation, the humiliation that I carry – by virtue of my birth as a Dalit – even here in the LAND OF THE FREEDOM.
Some argue that by virtue of being in this country, we are free. But you and I know that it is a big myth. We are all here because we aspire to be free. We are all here because we do not believe we are free. Like all our black brothers and sisters, we constantly battle against a system that aims to oppress us.
Did you know that South Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing in the USA? According to one of our allies, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), the population of South Asians is over 5.4 million in the USA? That’s more than Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont and Delaware put together.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the first generation who came to the USA from South Asia, have brought so many cultural values. Now imagine that a majority of this population is doing really well economically – you can see that from Pew research. Then the likes of us trickle in hoping to find EQUALITY, RIGHTS, LIBERTY, OPPORTUNITY AND DEMOCRACY.
Caste discrimination is real and exists in the soil of America. In America, the incidents of caste discrimination have increased in recent years. The workplace and housing industries remain a significant site of caste discrimination, harassment, and exclusion.
As an American citizen I should not have to fear for caste discrimination at any level. However, as an American Dalit or a racial minority, I always fear that my or my family’s liberty and dignity might be questioned or dehumanized just because of my ancestry or caste and race.
I am not surprised that we have met with resistance. What I am grateful for in this country -- is the learnings from all those who have come before us: From Ambedkar to Martin Luther King. We stand in their footsteps.
That’s why we are here at Wake Forest University. In this Conference, we will not only review the challenges and best practices of restoring justice for Dalits and other racial minorities.
We should also develop a comprehensive healing strategy to combat caste discrimination and defend the Dalit Rights at all levels. So that we could build social and interfaith harmony between various communities in a diverse and multi-cultural society.
The system of caste discrimination and untouchability are not only a product of local or cross-national or regional. This is a global phenomenon, this is not only a South Asian issue, this is an American or a European issue too.
Like racial discrimination, millions of caste-based racial minorities have faced untouchability and caste and racial discrimination in every corner of global society.
Yes, this is a fact that race became a global phenomenon and caste left as a local or national issue.
That is the reason establishing International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) bringing together local, cross national and global communities to globalize the fight against Caste Discrimination so that we can promote Dalit Rights as human rights and human rights as Dalit Rights.
The ICDR strategic approach is simple – collaboration, coordination and confrontation (battle).
We know this is not an easy path; we have faced so many challenges and threats over a decade or so.
Let me make clear that fighting against caste discrimination is a pure social justice and civil rights issue. We are not fighting for or against any groups, faiths or communities – we are fighting against discrimination and exclusion.
Let me take you in colonial era. If the origin of caste was a product of colonization, then why some of interfaith groups are associating oppressive caste discrimination with their faith systems or societies.
This is not a right thing to associate. I strongly believe that each faith must disassociate with oppressive caste discrimination.
Faith does not teach discrimination, exclusion or hate. And, I know there is no place for hate crimes, harassment or threats in a faith.
I also believe that eliminating caste discrimination – wouldn’t divide communities, or societies or nations – rather heal societies, build social and interfaith bonding and promote religious freedom with dignity and identity. This would make our society and nation stronger, and united.
Therefore, I would like to request all interfaith groups, South Asian Communities and all other sections of society to join us rather than threatening or assaulting us. No matter how much you push us down, we will stand and defend together.
Since 2014, we have started Caste Debate in America by organizing Global March against Caste Discrimination from the White House to the Capitol Hill in D.C. We urged government to recognize and enforce caste discrimination under the civil rights law.
Then we organized a Global Conference Defending Dalit Rights in 2015 near to Capitol Hill, where we developed a Dalit Rights Global Declaration 2015, a global advocacy framework, and asked Congress to pass a binding resolution against Caste Discrimination both in America and globally.
In 2017, ICDR filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) against caste-based discrimination at workplace.
Likewise, in 2018, the ICDR filed lawsuit with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) New York against Caste-based discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment at the workplace.
In 2021, ICDR and National Coalition against Caste Discrimination in America, submitted policy motions and legal arguments to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department Justice, U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Labor to recognize Caste-based discrimination as it is already covered by Civil Rights Laws.
The ICDR along with its allies continued building national Coalition with the civil rights groups, communities, progressive allies and social justice movement to combat against caste discrimination in America, and globally.
We can see the emerging impact of Caste Debate in America. Lawmakers in Seattle have already band caste discrimination, California is VOTING YES ON SB403 to band caste discrimination and many other local, state and federal lawmakers are in the process to introduce a new bill to ban oppressive caste discrimination across in America.
I assure that banning CASTE DISCRIMINATION is not anti-pagan for any faith systems or communities, rather it will promote diversity and inclusion.
More than that I do not have to hide my identity with my faith and society. I should not be judged by my caste. I would love to integrate with my community with dignity.
My son or any caste group should not have to hide his/ her identity to safeguard his dignity so that he can integrate in the society and practice religious freedom without any discrimination and humiliation.
I strongly believe that banning oppressive caste discrimination will heal one third of global populations. That’s is way more than the U.S. populations.
On the celebration of Dr. Ambedkar birth, we all should educate, organize and agitate against Caste Discrimination collectively. That will heal our society and communities.
---
* Remarks by DB Sagar, Founder and President, International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) on Caste Debate In America and Around the World at the Dalit Conference at Wake Forest University, NC, USA, on April 14, 2023

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