There's a reason why being counted in the census matters

A US Census worker walks across the street as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 29, 2020 in New York City. The Census is scheduled to end on October 31.

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(CNN)CNN's Harmeet Kaur joins this week's newsletter to discuss the long shadow of caste. She writes that even in the US, South Asians say that India's rigid system of social hierarchy is hard to escape.

But first, Brandon and Leah discuss the census: whom it counts, why it matters.

This week's culture conversation: The implications of ending the census early

 A volunteer from Brooklyn Voters Alliance (R) assists a person as he fills out an online census form September 27, 2020 in New York City.
Brandon: During a week that was full of important stories -- President Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis, the 2020 vice presidential debate -- one piece of news that didn't get as much attention was the Trump administration's attempt to end census operations by October 5, despite a court order.
The abrupt tweet on September 28 announcing that census operations would conclude came just days after a federal judge reinstated the October 31 end date. And then by October 1, a federal judge in California directed the administration not to end counting the following Monday.
Leah: Right, the proposed date would've been more than three weeks ahead of the October 31 deadline. The census has a massive impact on communities, determining funding, electoral votes, etc.
B: There's a number that jumps out at me. Not only does the census decide the number of congressional seats that states receive -- it also allocates $1.5 trillion in federal spending. There's a reason why being counted matters.
L: And poorer communities tend to be underfunded, and many are majority Black and brown -- so getting counted is especially important for the good of the community. Yet historically, these groups have been deemed "hard to count" by the Census Bureau and have reported lower-than-average responses.
We're already seeing these dynamics play out with the 2020 census.
As CNN's Nicole Chavez reported last month, Native Americans living on tribal lands and reservations often rely on census takers to drop off materials at their doors because their addresses aren't listed or they have limited internet access.
These efforts were delayed in March due to Covid-19, and according to Census Bureau data, now the Navajo Nation has only a 21.4% response rate, while the Hopi Tribe in Arizona has a 18.2% response rate. In Montana, the Crow Indian Reservation has an 18% response rate, and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation is at 16.3%. Those numbers are barely a third of the statewide response rates.
So there are some obvious takeaways here. What do you think?
B: Well, first, I think it's worth mentioning that when it comes to race and representation, the census has been problematic from the beginning.
"At the Constitutional Convention, southern states argued for slaves to be counted, which would increase those states' representation in Congress, while northern states opposed it. This was resolved in 1787 by the three-fifths compromise, under which slaves would count on the census as three-fifths of a person. The practice endured until the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, established that all people, including freed slaves, would be fully counted," according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Fast-forward a couple centuries, and given the character of the Trump administration, it's hard to argue that people weren't playing politics once again.
"What we've seen over the course of the last three to four years is a series of attempts to derail the count," is how Thomas Wolf, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, put it to CNN's Gregory Wallace. Wolf added: "The census is not a dry statistical matter. It is something that is bound up with key questions about how we distribute political power in this country."
Political power. That's precisely what Samer Khalaf, the national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, talked about with The Record, a New Jersey newspaper: "It has an effect on our community in the U.S. Our political power is based upon our numbers in this country, and what our numbers are in Passaic County or Hudson County."
So being counted is about money, yes, but it's also about political weight.
And experts agree that it was almost certainly intentional that the Trump administration tried to cut the 2020 census period short and in turn tip citizenship data in Republicans' favor.

Around the office

On the other side of the world, hundreds of protesters in India took to the streets last week.
The reason for their outrage: Two women in two different cities recently died from the injuries they sustained when they were gang raped.
What happened to the women was already horrific. But underlying their deaths was an insidious power dynamic: Both of the women were Dalits, part of a group considered so low that they fall outside of India's caste-based social hierarchy. The men who raped them belonged to upper castes.
The two incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Dalits in India routinely face segregation, economic inequality, violence and discrimination.
But caste isn't just a problem in India. Its shadow follows South Asians across borders and oceans, even rearing its head in the US -- an issue I explored in a story last month.
"Wherever South Asians go, they bring caste," Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of South Asian advocacy organization Equality Labs, told me.
Several people I talked to said their caste identity had proved hard to escape, something they didn't expect when they moved to the US for work or higher education.
One person told me he believed his manager had retaliated against him because of his caste identity, giving him poor performance reviews and transferring him back to India once it became clear he was a Dalit. Another described how her manager's dismissive behavior and coded caste references created a hostile environment for her, prompting her to leave her job for another one.
The people I spoke to told me that the bias and discrimination they encountered came mostly from Indians who had recently moved to the US. But the notions of caste can trickle down through generations, something you might have noticed if you watched Netflix's "Indian Matchmaking."
Still, the concept of caste isn't well understood outside the South Asian diaspora -- even though the pervasive nature of the Indian caste hierarchy bears obvious parallels to racism in the US, persisting through cultural notions and institutions even after legal discrimination was abolished.
Dalit activists in the US hope to change that, and some progress is already being made. A legal case in California could set a precedent for how the US deals with caste discrimination, and at least one institution is already taking steps to prevent against caste bias.
But much like the fight for racial justice in the US, the movement to eradicate caste discrimination -- both in India and abroad -- has a long way to go.