A member of the Shudra (laborer) caste in India sweeps the streets. (iStockphoto)
A meritocracy holds that if you work hard enough, you can succeed in life, regardless of race, religion, gender or social status. But a new study from UC Berkeley suggests that, despite egalitarian efforts to downplay class as a forecaster for intelligence and achievement, many people still believe their destiny is tied to their station in life.
The UC Berkeley study looked specifically at attitudes in India to the Hindu caste system. It found that children and adults who were more influenced by caste were also more likely to believe that their own natural aptitude, academic success, and personality traits were fixed or set in stone.
The results suggest that while education, technology and new money are promoting social mobility and replacing old hierarchies in countries like India, gut feelings about how far we can transcend the circumstances of our birth and upbringing remain firmly entrenched. This mindset is particularly true of teenagers and adults, according to the study published this month in the journal, Developmental Science.
“This is one of the first studies to show a real link between a cultural system of social stratification and how we view our own life’s possibilities,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Mahesh Srinivasan, lead author of the study.
The results indicate the need to instill in children a “growth mindset” about their intellectual abilities rather than a fixed one because, as the study notes, people who believe that intelligence is fixed are more likely to avoid challenging problems.
“If you believe your ability is fixed and you do badly on a math test, you can just tell yourself that you’re bad at math and shouldn’t have to study any more,” Srinivasan said. “But if you believe your ability is flexible and can be improved with effort, then you may decide that you would have succeeded if you had studied harder such that you’ll be more likely to do better in the future.”
For the study, more than 300 children and adults from a wide-range of socio-economic backgrounds in India were surveyed about their views on education, social activities and interactions, and marriage and career prospects, among other things. Specifically, they were polled on their willingness to talk to people of other castes, accept food from them, befriend them, hug them, invite them to their homes, let their children play with them, employ them or work for them, and marry them.
Regardless of whether they belonged to India’s ruling class, middle class, working class or underclass, teenagers and adults consistently showed that the more they believed that caste is important, the more rigid were their ideas about their own intelligence, personality and ambitions.
Traditionally, Indian society has been divided into four main castes into which Hindus are born: the priestly Brahmins, the warrior Kshatriyas, the merchant Vaishyas, the laborer Shudras and, additionally, the untouchable Dalits, renamed “Harijan” or “children of God” by Mahatma Gandhi.
Caste in India can play a major role in whom you choose as a marriage partner (iStockphoto)
Since 1950, discrimination based on caste in India has been outlawed, yet the study still found that many participants perceive caste to be an active form of social stratification. The findings build on a previous study published by Srinivasan and fellow researchers that showed that by the third grade, children in India show implicit biases toward members of higher castes.
“If caste is a central lens though which children view their social identity it may have a pervasive effect on their attitudes and predict not only how children view the status and achievement of members of different caste groups, but also how they view their own attributes,” this latest study points out.
Children in the study were recruited from two English-language elementary schools in Gujurat, India, and were aged between 7 and 18. The adults were surveyed online and nearly half self-identified as “Other Backward Class,” a government designation that entitles members of lower castes to preferential treatment when applying for jobs in the public sector or in higher education.
The surveys asked participants to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with such statements as: “I can change how smart I am by working hard and studying a lot” (intelligence); “The kind of person someone is cannot be changed very much” (personality); “If a low caste child works hard, they can accomplish as much in life as a high caste child” (social mobility); and “People have complete control over life’s decisions” (free will).
Both adults and children believed that members of low castes would be more willing to interact with people from high castes than vice versa. A key predictor in the survey was the importance of caste in shaping decisions about whom to wed, which fits with reports that caste is still a prominent force in the choice of marriage partners, Srinivasan said.
“These findings suggest that the culture in which a child is raised may shape wide-ranging beliefs about the nature of their own abilities, traits, and life possibilities,” Srinivasan said. “We hope that by raising awareness of how cultural messages may affect individual mindsets, we can develop interventions to promote better life outcomes for individuals across socioeconomic strata.”
In addition to Srinivasan, authors and researchers on the study are Yarrow Dunham at Yale University, and Catherine Hicks and David Barner at the University of California, San Diego. The study was funded by a grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.
In the US, inequality tends to be framed as an issue of either class, race, or both. Consider, for example, criticism that Republicans’ new tax plan is a weapon of “class warfare,” or accusations that the recent US government shutdown was racist.
As an India-born novelist and scholar who teaches in the US, I have come to see America’s stratified society through a different lens: caste.
Many Americans would be appalled to think that anything like caste could exist in a country allegedly founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, India’s atrocious caste system determines social status by birth, compels marriage within a community, and restricts job opportunity.
But is the US really so different?
What is caste?
I first realised that caste could shed a new light on American inequality in 2016, when I was scholar-in-residence at the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown.
There, I found that my public presentations on caste resonated deeply with students, who were largely working-class, black, and Latino. I believe that’s because two key characteristics differentiate caste from race and class.
First, caste cannot be transcended. Unlike class, people of the “low” Mahar caste cannot educate or earn their way out of being Mahar. No matter how elite their college or how lucrative their careers, those born into a low caste remain stigmatised for life.
Caste is also always hierarchical: As long as it exists, so does the division of people into “high” and “low.” That distinguishes it from race, in that people in a caste system cannot dream of equality.
It’s significant that the great mid-20th-century Indian reformer BR Ambedkar called not for learning to “live together as brothers and sisters,” as Martin Luther King Jr did, but for the very “annihilation of caste.”
Caste, in other words, is societal difference made timeless, inevitable, and cureless. Caste says to its subjects, “You all are different and unequal, and fated to remain so.”
Neither race nor class, nor race and class combined, can so efficiently encapsulate the kind of of social hierarchy, prejudice, and inequality that marginalised Americans experience.
Is America casteist?
In Houston, that sense of profound exclusion emerged in most post-presentation discussions about caste.
As children, the students there noted, they had grown up in segregated urban neighborhoods—geographic exclusion that, I would add, was federal policy for most of the 20th century. Many took on unpayable student loan debts for college, then struggled to stay in school while juggling work and family pressures, often without a support system.
Several students also contrasted their cramped downtown campus—with its parking problems, limited dining options, and lack of after-hours cultural life—with the university’s swankier main digs. Others would point out the jail across from the University of Houston-Downtown with bleak humor, invoking the school-to-prison pipeline.
Both the faculty and the students knew the power of social networks that are essential to professional success. Yet even with a college degree, evidence shows, Americans who grow up poor are almost guaranteed to earn less.
For many who’ve heard me speak—not just in Houston but also across the country at book readings for my 2017 novel Ghost in the Tamarind—the restrictions imposed by India’s caste system recall the massive resistance they’ve experienced in trying to get ahead.
They have relayed to me, with compelling emotional force, their conviction that America is casteist.
Caste in the US and India
This notion is not unprecedented.
In the mid-20th century, the American anthropologist Gerald Berreman returned home from fieldwork in India as the civil rights movement was getting underway. His 1960 essay, Caste in India and the United States, concluded that towns in the Jim Crow South bore enough similarity to the north Indian villages he had studied to consider that they had a caste society.
Granted, 2018 is not 1960, and the contemporary US is not the segregated South. And to be fair, caste in India isn’t what it used to be, either. Since 1950, when the constitution of newly independent India made caste discrimination illegal, some of the system’s most monstrous ritual elements have weakened.
The stigma of untouchability—the idea that physical contact with someone of lower caste can be polluting—for example, is fading. Today, those deemed “low caste” can sometimes achieve significant power. Indian president Ram Nath Kovind is a Dalit, a group formerly known as “untouchable.”
Still, caste in India remains a powerful form of social organisation. It segments Indian society into marital, familial, social, political, and economic networks that are enormously consequential for success. And for a variety of practical and emotional reasons, these networks have proven surprisingly resistant to change.
Casteist ideologies in America
At bottom, caste’s most defining feature is its ability to render inevitable a rigid and pervasive hierarchical system of inclusion and exclusion.
What working-class Americans and people of color have viscerally recognised, in my experience, is that casteist ideologies—theories that produce a social hierarchy and then freeze it for time immemorial—also permeate their world.
Take, for example, the controversial 1994 “The Bell Curve” thesis, which held that African-Americans and poor people have a lower IQ, thus linking American inequality to genetic difference.
More recently, the white nationalist Richard Spencer has articulated a vision of white identity marked, caste-like, by timelessness and hierarchy.
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created unequal,’” he wrote in a July 2017 essay for an alt-right website. “In the wake of the old world, this will be our proposition.”
Add to these ideological currents the evidence on the race gap in higher education, stagnant upward mobility, and rising inequality, and the truth is damning. Five decades after the civil rights movement, American society remains hierarchical, exclusionary, and stubbornly resistant to change.
Caste gives Americans a way to articulate their sense of persistent marginalisation. And by virtue of being apparently foreign—it comes from India, after all—it usefully complicates the dominant American Dream narrative.
The US has a class problem. It has a race problem. And it may just have a caste problem, too.
Subramanian Shankar, professor of English (postcolonial literature and creative writing), University of Hawaii. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.