Written By: Anchal Saxena
On October 16, 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a suit against Cisco Systems, Inc. and two of its employees, alleging workplace discrimination, harassment, and subsequent retaliation violations. Plaintiff claims Defendants discriminated against him on the basis of caste by subjecting him to the lowest status within the team, which resulted in less pay, fewer professional opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment. On April 6, 2023, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the case following an order of the Santa Clara Superior County Court. Nonetheless, Plaintiff claims that litigation against Cisco remains active, and they intend to “vigorously litigate the matter on behalf of the people of California” and intend to “secur[e] relief and ensur[e] company wide, corrective action.”
This case introduced U.S. Courts to the caste system, a 3000-year-old South Asian social hierarchy system. Since the filing of this case, there has been growing momentum to ban caste discrimination across the country. In February 2023, Seattle became the first city to outlaw caste discrimination. In March 2023, Senator Aisha Wahab introduced a bill to protect against caste discrimination to the California State Legislature. Furthermore, several universities have updated their nondiscrimination policies to include caste. Even with this movement across the country, the South Asian community remains divided on how to address and resolve caste discrimination.
What is caste?
Caste is a social organization system prevalent in South Asia. Caste creates a strict social stratification into ranked groups, which are typically defined by birth and occupation. Among the caste groups, Dalits (formerly called the “outcastes” or “untouchables”) are the lowest caste, and many members discuss experiences of being excluded from South Asian society because their occupations and way of life historically brought them in contact with “impurities.” Lower-caste and upper-caste members are typically indistinguishable based on physical characteristics. However, discrimination based on caste was inherent in the allocation of jobs, land, basic resources and amenities, and physical security.
The Caste system was abolished in India in 1948, and this prohibition was enshrined in the Indian Constitution in 1950. Nonetheless, even with the formal protections of the law, discriminatory treatment continues in some places and is reinforced by societal norms and private practices in India and other South Asian countries.
The Arguments in Favor of Outlawing Caste Discrimination in America:
Some groups, including the Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity, argue that safeguards for the Dalit community are necessary to protect this vulnerable community from caste-based discrimination in housing, education, and the technology sector, where many hold employment. These advocates suggest that caste discrimination in America is present among the South Asian community and the diaspora.
Some suggest U.S. immigration policies may have contributed to caste-based discrimination in America. The 1965 Immigration Act established a preference for “skilled” migrants from across the world. This legislation allowed South Asians from predominately upper castes, the individuals with greater access to education and high-paying jobs, to become the dominant South Asian population in America. Advocates argue that the selective nature of U.S. immigration policy thus created the conditions for caste bias and discrimination in hiring and promotion policy.
Although the Cisco case first publicized the Dalit experience in the technology sector, many other workers employed at large technology companies have expressed similar caste bias experiences. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Advocates argue these lawsuits are needed to add caste to the existing list of protected categories against discrimination under federal law. This legal protection, advocates contend, will destigmatize caste identification and ensure that vulnerable lower-caste groups are not stigmatized when they reveal their identities. Furthermore, this will formally recognize discrimination that has been invisible for decades.
The Arguments Against Outlawing Caste Discrimination in America:
Other organizations, including the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, oppose the adoption of such policies. They argue that the adoption of caste as a protected class will specifically target Hindus and Indian Americans as communities commonly associated with the caste system. These groups also contend that there is little data suggesting that discrimination based on caste truly exists, and that if it does exist then existing protected classes, such as “race” or “national origin,” will cover caste discrimination, making it unnecessary to carve out a separate protected category.
Several Indians contend that as Americans, they no longer identify as members of castes. Opponents of caste becoming a protected category argue that it would force Indian Americans and their children to acknowledge and accept their caste identity, a practice deemed illegal in India since 1948. Advocates for caste as a protected class argue in opposition that the ability to insist that they do not see or believe in caste is in itself a privilege of being from an upper caste, and such “caste-blindness” does not eliminate caste privilege or disadvantage.
The discussion around caste becoming a protected class is only just beginning. There are currently over six million South Asian Americans in the U.S. Many are important members of the workforce, skilled in technology, medicine, and other fields. Our Courts and legislatures must be prepared to understand these complex historical and social issues, remain open-minded, and listen keenly to the concerns of South Asian Americans on all sides of the issue.
42 U.S.C. § 2000e – 2000e-17.
Complaint at 2, Cal. Dep’t of Fair Emp’t and Hous. v. Cisco Systems, Inc., et. al, No. 20CV372366 (Cal. Super. Ct. Oct. 16, 2020).
Deepa Bharath, Caste discrimination case against two Cisco engineers is dismissed—but litigation remains alive, FORTUNE (Apr. 11, 2023, 6:32 AM).
Encyclopedia Britannica, India: Caste (June 24, 2020).
Rohit Chopra & Ajantha Subramanian, Caste Discrimination Exists in the U.S., Too—But a Movement to Outlaw It Is Growing, TIME (Feb. 11, 2022, 1:54 PM).
Smita Narula, Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (2001), https://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/g/general/caste0801.pdf.
Strause Law Group, PLLC, Should caste be a protected class under our employment laws?, STRAUSE LAW GROUP, PLLC (2023).
Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar, Progress in 5 Minutes: Caste as protected category, THE PROGRESS NETWORK (Mar. 9, 2023), https://theprogressnetwork.org/seattle-caste/.