Long long with caste be a bar? Perhaps more than three centuries!

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In the 2000s I read a fair number of books such as Nicholas Dirks’ Castes of Mind. The impression one gets from these books is that jati-varna status and stratification are protean. Much of it a recent function of jockeying during the colonial and liminal colonial era. The “uplift” of groups such as Patidars and Marathas, for example. Or the emergence of Kayasthas as literate non-Brahmin service castes for Muslim rulers.

The genetic data that emerged in the 2000s though shocked me with two facts:

– There is within region a rough correlation, imperfect, but existent, of what we now call “steppe ancestry” and caste status

– Jati groups in a given region were shockingly distinct, and many exhibited a lot of genetic drift.

Endogamy was deep, ancient, powerful, and, genetic differences of the deep past persisted, rather than mixing away.

These are not perfect generalizations. The correlation between steppe and and status breaks down in the northwest to a great extent (thought still not totally). There are groups, such as Bengali Kayasthas, who approximate Brahmin status (even still being lower), but are genetically similar to non-elite non-Brahmins. Within the data there are castes which seem composites (Khamboj in some recent data).

This is a preface to the fact that I’ve gotten into recent arguments inadvertently online about caste, and its role in the Indian future. So I decided to look at the data. Here is my short conclusion: jati-varana is way more robust than I would have thought. Outmarriage rates were 5% as of 2011, and they didn’t vary that much by social status. At current rates it could take 500 years for caste not to be a big deal in India.
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Caste – bred to the bone!

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Kushal Mehra and I had a discussion on the Brown Pundits podcast about caste. I will post for Patrons today and push it live tomorrow. I want to review a few things from my perspective on this issue related to what we talked about.

– The paper The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia highlights a fact: jati has a very strong genetic reality. The stylized fact is that caste endogamy has been strong across southern Asia for 1,500 years. Genetically you can have two castes in the same village in Andhra Pradesh who are as distinct as people from Finland and Sicily.

Additionally, jati is not arbitrary. Brahmins across India may not be closely related, but they tend to have more “Ancestral North Indian” than their non-Brahmin neighbors, on average (true everywhere except for the Northwest of the subcontinent).

– Kushal asked if jati varna was an ESS. I have suggested that caste fragmentation made it harder for non-Indians to take over and assimilate Indian society. But, it is not the only ESS.

– The main contrast I give is to China. People who can read classical Chinese (which was the norm in the early 20th century) can still read oracle bones from the Shang dynasty 3,400 years ago. This is a civilization with continuity and integrity.

The Chinese are a population that has managed to absorb other groups and do it without caste endogamy. Rather, like Europeans, Chinese genetic variation is a function of geography, not class/caste. In fact, the Chinese never developed a blood nobility like Europe. The basis of Chinese civilization has unapologetically been the peasantry.

– In The WEIRDest People in the World Harvard’s Joe Henrich makes the argument that the Western Christian Church’s destruction of extended family networks led to the rise of the West. I won’t recapitulate the argument which I’ve outlined elsewhere. But the idea is rather persuasive.

It seems that the hostility and skepticism toward caste from some on the “Hindu Right” really has to do with Indian nationalism. Jati varna was a reasonable institution in a pre-modern context, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that national cohesion is reduced when people view themselves as members of a “community” first and foremost, and not a nation-state.

From the traditionalist side, the idea that jati varna is a great functional system is really not the point. Let’s be frank: people are invested in their particular traditions and their purity. The rest is commentary.

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Dalit in Silicon Valley

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Indian American food

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States as brown was different than now. The Indian Americans I knew were a heterodox bunch who, like me, grew up around white people, and habituated themselves to American culture. Though most were Hindu, a fair number enjoyed beef hamburgers, just like other kids.

This is why the story of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley is so striking to me. Most of you know already about what is happening with Cisco, but The New York Times covers it well in The Specter of Caste in Silicon Valley. The author of Coming out Dalit, she is herself a Dalit Indian American, and so has a unique perspective.

There is one number which is reported in the piece and aligns with everything I’ve ever seen in the United States of America: 90% of Indian Americans are not lower caste. Of those who are lower caste, whatever that means, I doubt much more than 1% are Dalit. I know this partly because I have a sampling of 300 Indian American genotypes from one of the DTC firms (four parents born in India), and the genetic variation aligns pretty much with the above distribution.

Therefore, I am skeptical of the idea of pervasive caste discrimination because there are just not that many Dalits, period. The last data I have seen shows that 25% of Indian Americans are Brahmin.

That being said since the late 1990s a massive wave of immigrants from India have arrived to work in tech and recreated their home country in the US. When I was in graduate school I met a young woman who was a master’s student with a very mild Indian accent. I asked her when she had arrived from India, and she said that she was born in Cupertino! So it would not surprise me if some people did bring the habits and views of the old country, and without assimilation into diverse workplaces, things such as caste discrimination may occur (I have heard from people that networks of people from the same region and caste are a thing, though not pervasive).

But, I don’t think this will ever be huge in the United States for a simple reason: the number of Indian Americans of 1.5 and 2nd generation who marry within caste/jati is not that high. The last data from the 2010s indicate 35-40% of those born or raised here marry non-Indians. Of the remainder, many of them marry people from other backgrounds than that of their parents. In fact, the majority.

Caste is about pedigree. That is just not maintained in the USA.

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American caste! (?)

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On August 4th a new book is coming out, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The author is a journalist who has published a substantial extract of the book at The New York Times Magazine, America’s Enduring Caste System: Our founding ideals promise liberty and equality for all. Our reality is an enduring racial hierarchy that has persisted for centuries:

Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The lingering, millenniums-long caste system of India. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.

When shared on Twitter even Left-Indians, normally sympathetic to Left-American journalists and their Weltanschauung, recoiled. My main comment is simple: write what you know. From the extract, the author does not seem to know enough about the Indian social system and history to make informative and illuminating comparisons to the United States.

Also, though I personally am not positively disposed toward caste, comparing it to Nazi Germany seems needlessly inflammatory.

I will note a few things

– The latest surveys suggest intercase marriages in India are now at 10%

– In America, 20% of the marriage partners of black Americans are not black

In 300 years about 20% of the ancestry of black Americans is now of European origin. In contrast, there are villages in Andhra Pradesh where people of different castes (jati) are genetically more distinct than Scandinavians are from Italians. David Reich’s group has an estimated < 1% intermarriage rate between the groups, with a rough crystallization of caste boundaries 1,500 years ago.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents probably had its conclusion prewritten. The argument is something added on later.

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Why I like to ask about caste

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Last week I was at a conference where a British academic asked an American academic “how much money do you make?” It was really strange to me because in American society you don’t ask this question. It’s not polite. And I immediately explained to the British academic that you just don’t ask this question.

But, it illustrates what really matters in America. “How much money do you make?” gets to the heart of the American ethos. We don’t talk about it in public, but on some level, it’s the ultimate thing that matters. Americans really really care about money.

What you can’t talk about, is what really matters. So when Zach invited a bunch of people to the Whatsapp group (which I don’t check that frequently), I decided to just ask someone’s caste. Of course, that is “not done.” But that’s because of the fact that most people on some level care. A lot. That’s how you could have a group where most people are on the same page about the problems and deficits of caste privilege, but everyone turns out to be not lower caste.

On Aziz Ansari’s new special there’s a thing about how white people are “woke” on Instagram. Similarly, you see the Chatterjee’s, Iyers, and Tripathis outdoing each other on how awful caste privilege is on Twitter.

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Genetical observations on caste

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One of the more interesting and definite aspects of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here is on caste. In short, it looks like most Indian jatis have been genetically endogamous for ~2,000 years, and, varna groups exhibit some consistent genetic differences.

This is relevant because it makes the social constructionist view rather untenable. The genetic distinctiveness of jati groups is very hard to deny, it jumps out of the data. The assertions about varna are fuzzier. But, on the whole Brahmins across South Asia have the most ancestry from ancient “steppe” groups, while Dalits across South Asia have the least. Kshatriya is closer to Brahmins. Vaisya has lower fractions of “steppe”. And so on. These varna generalizations aren’t as clear and distinct as jati endogamy. Sudras from Punjab may have as much or more “steppe” than South Indian Brahmins. But the coarse patterns are striking.

As a geneticist, and as an irreligious atheist, a lot of the conversations about “caste” are irrelevant to me. They’re semantical.

You can tell me that true Hinduism doesn’t have caste, that it was “invented” by Westerners. They may not have had caste, but the genetical data is clear that South Asians were endogamous for 2,000 years to an extreme degree. Additionally, the classical caste hierarchy seems to correlate with particular ancestry fractions.

Second, you can say Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism don’t have caste. That they picked it up from Hinduism. Or Indian culture. That’s true. But I think Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are all made up, just like Hinduism. I don’t care if made up ideologies don’t have caste in their made up religious system. I am curious about the revealed patterns genetically.

I have a pretty big data set of South Asians. Some of them are from the 1000 Genomes. Here is where the 1000 Genomes South Asians were collected:

Gujarati Indians from Houston, Texas
Punjabi from Lahore, Pakistan
Bengali from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sri Lankan Tamil from the UK
Indian Telugu from the UK

Some of the groups showed a lot of genetic variation, so I split them based on how much “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI) they had. So Gujurati_ANI_1 has more ANI than Gujurati_ANI_2 and so forth.

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