EDITORIAL: Commending anti-discrimination efforts on caste
On Tuesday Dec. 17, University President Ron Liebowitz announced that Brandeis would be adding caste to its non-discrimination and harassment policy, becoming the first private university to do so. The term “caste” refers to one’s designation within a rigid social stratification system. This statement from the president may have come as somewhat of a surprise, with many Brandeis students unaware that such discrimination happens in the United States where there is no explicit caste system. Banning caste discrimination is an important step toward protecting Brandeis community members from discrimination.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines caste as “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion,” per a June 19, 2019 BCC News article. This is the definition the University has adopted in its nondiscrimination policy, according to a Jan. 21 Justice article . The most widespread caste system is in India, where it is one of “the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification.” Caste is rooted in Hindu law but banned by India’s constitution. However, caste systems are not exclusive to India or Hinduism, and this board recognizes that caste is just one aspect of Hindu culture and that Hinduism itself is not being — and should not be — devalued or looked down upon. The nondiscrimination policy simply addresses any discrimination that results from such caste systems.
Although it is not explicitly present in American culture, caste bias affects people all over the country. A Feb. 27, 2019 WGBH article detailed an account from the University of Alabama in which an Indian professor “wanted to check on the caste background of a student whom he was considering for admission.” That student was ultimately denied admission and decided not to take legal action. However, there would have been little legal recourse available should they have chosen to pursue it, simply because there is no precedent for such a suit. Caste discrimination is not illegal in the United States, as a Feb. 28, 2019 BrandeisNOW article explains. Although Brandeis has no recorded incidents of admission denial based on caste, we are not immune to the possibility.
This board commends President Liebowitz for making this change and taking steps to minimize caste discrimination at Brandeis. Through this preventative policy, the University is living up to its social justice-focused mission. In fact, the University’s mission statement explicitly cites a “need to analyze and address the ways in which social, cultural and economic inequalities affect power and privilege … at Brandeis itself.” Recent protests have called into question the administration’s commitment to the University’s founding tenets, and this amendment to our non-discrimination policy demonstrates that commitment in a tangible way.
Obviously, the nuances of caste prejudice are complex and the prejudice itself will not be eradicated at Brandeis simply because of its addition to the non-discrimination and harassment policy. Now that we have taken this first step, this board encourages the University to use its resources — including Prof. Laurence Simon (Heller), who is an expert on the caste system — to continue the efforts to minimize discrimination.
This policy will also start important conversations about a type of discrimination that students may not have considered before and shows support for students who have experienced it.
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