San Francisco, California, the United States — Civil rights organisations and Dalit rights groups are adding urgency to their calls to end caste-based discrimination in the US after incidents in California and New Jersey have thrust the issue into the spotlight.
Dalits, who were formally referred to as “untouchables”, occupy the lowest position in the complex Hindu caste system and have historically faced discrimination and violence at the hands of members of other castes in India and other parts of South Asia.
Advocates say this discrimination has unfortunately migrated to the US along with workers from the region and is now running rampant in several US industries.
In New Jersey, a complaint was filed on behalf of more than 200 Indian workers in federal court on Tuesday, alleging Dalit workers were forced to work long hours for one-tenth of the state’s minimum wage after being recruited to build a Hindu temple for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, also known as BAPS.
In California, a first-of-its-kind lawsuit is making its way through the courts after a Dalit employee accused his employer, technology giant Cisco, and two of its former engineering managers of allowing caste-based discrimination in the workplace.
The issue is being discussed at the federal level, too. On Monday, the International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR), six scholars and a dozen other rights groups submitted a memo to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asking that caste-based discrimination be added to US federal nondiscriminatory guidelines.
The memo is the latest push from activists for US academic, business and government institutions to take caste-based discrimination seriously.
Among the ICDR and other memo signatories’ demands is to include caste as a protected class and enshrine zero tolerance for caste-based discrimination and prejudice in US workplace codes of conduct — something activists say hasn’t happened yet in part because of Americans’ unfamiliarity with the caste system.
“Because casteism takes place in a social context not all Americans are familiar with, it can be very coded and subtle,” Anil Wagde, an attorney with the US branch of Dalit rights organisation the Ambedkar International Center, told Al Jazeera. “It’s important for companies to educate their employees about caste-based discrimination, and to explicitly protect against it.”
Advocacy groups are now working to thrust caste-based discrimination into the spotlight, particularly in industries where it has already allegedly reared its ugly head, such as the technology sector.
The Cisco case was a big deal because it really took away the plausible deniability around the presence of caste-based discrimination in the tech sector.
“Caste is a brutal form of supremacy,” Wagde said. “If steps aren’t taken now, we run the risk of this system spreading and calcifying in the United States.”
Several technology companies have faced allegations of caste-based discrimination in the workplace in recent years, and in October, 30 Dalit women engineers at Google, Apple, Microsoft and Cisco issued a statement shared with The Washington Post detailing their experiences with anti-Dalit bigotry in the tech sector.
“We also have had to weather demeaning insults to our background and that we have achieved our jobs solely due to affirmative action. It is exhausting,” the women, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation, wrote in the statement.
“We are good at our jobs and we are good engineers. We are role models for our community and we want to continue to work in our jobs. But it is unfair for us to continue in hostile workplaces, without protections from caste discrimination.”
The women spoke out months after the high-profile lawsuit against Cisco was filed by a Dalit engineer in June 2020.
In the suit (PDF), the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) alleges the engineer, referred to as John Doe to protect his identity, was subjected to a hostile work environment and was “expected to accept a caste hierarchy within the workplace”, which translated into “the lowest status within the team” and less pay, fewer opportunities and other inferior conditions.
But Cisco denies those claims and said its own internal investigation “found no evidence that [the plaintiff] was discriminated or retaliated against on the basis of caste”, the company’s general counsel, Mark Chandler, wrote in a blog post.
While Chandler acknowledged the company “had never encountered a claim of casteism” before this one, he noted that “Nevertheless, Employee Relations management instructed that it be investigated as would be any complaint of discrimination, even though there is no law, federal or state, defining caste as a protected classification.”
Caste is a brutal form of supremacy. If steps aren’t taken now, we run the risk of this system spreading and calcifying in the United States.
While Cisco said that it treats casteism as an unacceptable form of discrimination, it did not respond to Al Jazeera’s question about whether the company plans to explicitly add caste to the list of protected identities in its employee code of conduct.
Chandler added that the company would fully support legislation “adding caste to the list of categories having protection against discrimination”, but “will continue to treat caste as an unacceptable form of discrimination for purposes of our internal reviews – as we did in [this plaintiff’s] case”.
John Rushing, an attorney assisting the Ambedkar International Center, which filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit, said that while caste is not expressly protected, it falls into categories that are, such as ancestry.
“If your parents are ‘untouchables’, you inherit that status from them,” Rushing told Al Jazeera. “There’s no doubt that caste-based discrimination falls under discrimination based on ancestry.”
Many Dalits come to the United States in the hope of escaping the bigotry and violence that they live with back home, only to watch with horror as these systems reorient themselves in the United States.
Workers at other Silicon Valley tech companies are also speaking out. In mid-April, the Alphabet Workers Union released a statement in favour of the lawsuit against Cisco and stated that “caste should be recognized as a protected class by the federal government and be included in anti-harassment policies within our industry”, including Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc.
“The Cisco case was a big deal, because it really took away the plausible deniability around the presence of caste-based discrimination in the tech sector,” Raksha Muthukumar, a spokesperson for the Alphabet Workers Union, told Al Jazeera.
“I think a lot of companies are paying attention now, and it’s time for them to recognise caste as a protected identity,” Muthukumar added.
Google did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment about the company’s intention to take steps to protect against casteism.
The Cisco case is set to resume in September following attempts by Cisco to move the dispute to arbitration and an appeal by California’s DFEH to allow the plaintiff to retain anonymity.
As Dalit activists await an outcome in the Cisco case, calls have been growing for government, academic and business organisations to be more proactive in combatting and educating employees about casteism.
“Many Dalits come to the United States in the hope of escaping the bigotry and violence that they live with back home, only to watch with horror as these systems reorient themselves in the United States,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of the Dalit rights group Equality Labs, told Al Jazeera.
A 2016 Equality Labs survey of Dalit workers living in the US found that two out of three reported experiencing harassment due to their lower-caste status in the workplace. But while Soundararajan says that such discrimination is common, hearing from Dalits about it is less so.
“Many Dalits try to keep their caste identity hidden,” she said.
Dalit rights groups say the problem is also prevalent in the education system. In the Equality Labs survey, one in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against during their education.
A victory in this (Cisco) case would be a victory for the promise that America offers an opportunity for a new life with equal rights. If this case goes through, Dalits will start speaking out, and there will be many more. If we don’t address this now, it will continue to get worse.
The plaintiff in the Cisco lawsuit claims he tried to keep his identity as a Dalit hidden but was outed by upper-caste coworkers who knew him at university back in India.
The Cal State Student Association (CSSA), an organisation representing more than half a million students in California’s state university system, unanimously passed a resolution in April supporting the addition of caste as a protected category, another example of how the issue has become front and centre since the Cisco suit was filed.
But as more Dalits speak up about and use the courts to address caste-based discrimination, Soundararajan said more Dalits are willing to share their own experiences.
“Dalits have been coming forward and sharing their stories of harassment and discrimination with us in a way we haven’t seen before,” said Soundararajan. “One individual told us that they made a mistake on a project and a supervisor from an upper caste told them ‘We know how brainless your people are’.”
Dalits are also viewing the outcome of the lawsuit as a bellwether for their fight for rights and recognition.
“A victory in this [Cisco] case would be a victory for the promise that America offers an opportunity for a new life with equal rights,” Suraj Yengde, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies caste, told Al Jazeera.
“If this case goes through, Dalits will start speaking out, and there will be many more. If we don’t address this now, it will continue to get worse.”