This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, with editors notes added in [brackets] to provide context. Part 1 of our two-part interview with Phillip Martin appears below.
Phillip Martin, Senior Investigative Reporter for WGBH News, has been to India and back. In his new series, “Caste In America,” Martin delves into casteism, prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of caste, and its continued practice in the present day in the United States and Canada. We sat down with him to learn more and hear about his travels.
Your series, “Caste in America,” is so thorough and personal. How did you begin your reporting?
Martin: In 2001, I was in South Africa for NPR as a correspondent covering the international conference on race. One of the issues that came up was caste [class structure determined by birth in Hindu society], specifically caste discrimination. What was notable was that the Indian government lobbied hard against this. Caste, for many people, took the form of one of those -isms that you should be fighting. The Indian government fought hard to make sure caste was not something that was the major focus of this conference. I was interested from that point on.
Fast forward many years to 2016, Brandeis [University] held the first conference on caste. I expected it to only center on South Asia, but suddenly I heard people in the United States who live here, people who formally known as “Untouchables,” talking about really terrible traumatic experiences in the United States. That’s one of those moments where you realize that a particular form of hierarchy had been imported. The caste system, though considered antiquated and even irrelevant in terms of their daily lives, still impacts the people who are what fall with on the lowest rungs of society, the so called “Untouchables.”
At a subsequent conference the next year in 2017, I heard the same conversation. That’s when I decided, “This is a story,” we have to do something about this particular caste of people, [“Untouchables” or] “Dalits.”
In 2018, I applied for a grant from the Pulitzer Center on [crisis reporting] conflict. I was awarded the grant and I used it to travel to India to interview Suraj Yengde, who lives here [in Boston], but his life is still in India.
Why did you go to India, if you were writing about casteism in America?
Martin: It was important to juxtapose Suraj’s life there [in India] with his life here [in the United States]. He’s Harvard graduated here, and that juxtaposition is no clearer than through his own words and actions. We toured his community and the city of Nanded, and he refers to it as a “slum.” I guess there’s no other way of describing something so devastated, in terms of living conditions and social policy. They live among some of the poorest people in the world, but even among Dalits there are gradations. Some Dalits are considered the lowest of the low, and those contain the sewage workers.
But the idea of going there was in order to talk about what’s happening here. There’s a stark juxtaposition and the prejudices [Dalits] encounter here in America are far more subtle. You can have chemical engineers, doctors and PhD and doctorate students who are Dalits, and they are fine in terms of having conversations with fellow Indians. Unless they reveal their last names or are explicit about who they are. Sometimes people don’t know. But I heard story after story of discrimination.
Can you give us an example of the discrimination you heard about?
Martin: There was a man who spoke at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania and was getting along splendidly with everyone, until one of the sponsors of the conference introduced him, in whatever subtle way, as a Dalit. Then people made excuses for leaving the dinner or not taking part in the conversation.
In India, it’s more explicit. People say, “You cannot touch me, and I won’t touch you, and do not walk behind me because you’ll pollute my shadow.” That’s very explicit. Here, it’s more subtle. Here, people make excuses for not taking part in conversations, not having dinner. At the restaurant we featured in the series on Curry Hill, [Part 4 of the series] for example, the waiter said the other waiters said they were fine with him serving customers, but they didn’t want to sit with him during the breaks. They didn’t want to touch him, didn’t want to have conversations with him because he was a Dalit.
How was your trip to India? What was it like?
Martin: The trip itself was eye-opening. I’d never been to India. I’m going to go back, and I’m going to do a follow-up on this at some point. It will focus on H1B visas [visas that allow immigrants to work in the United States] and who’s coming here, and how and why some are chosen within that very selective process of determining who’s going to be working which corporations in the United States. And especially the role of caste in that determination.
In India, when I asked one of the cab drivers to take me to a Dalit neighborhood, he took me to the outskirts, and he wouldn’t drive me any further. And that’s in a modern city. That wasn’t a village. In the villages this happens all the time, nothing unusual. The cities have a greater merging, and it was still like this.
Can you tell me about the two other journalists who worked on this with you?
Martin: It was important to me that this series not be done entirely by just me, an African-American reporter, and that voices of South Asians be represented. Thus, the reason for recruiting reporters I knew, editors I knew. I’ve known Tinku [Ray] for years. We worked together at PRI’s The World many years ago. I’ve known Kavita [Pillay] for years from other work that we’ve done. It was important for me to bring them and their voices into this story.