njsbf new jersey state bar foundation logo a 501c3 non profit organization

Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Daryl E. Lucas

In recent years, America has seen growing discussions and legal debate on a form of discrimination that has its roots in some communities from the South Asian diaspora, one of the largest and fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States. Though caste discrimination was outlawed in India and other South Asian countries decades ago, data and surveys show the practice persists, and has made its way to the United States.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving immigration policies through research and analysis, the United States’ Indian population—people either born in India or who have Indian ancestry—started growing in the 1980s. Today, according to U.S. Census figures, America’s South Asian diaspora, which includes those from India, as well as Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—totals more than 4 million.

Diaspora is a Greek word that means “to scatter about” and is defined as the spread of a people from their homeland to another geographical place. In other words, a particular ethnic group—in this case, those from India or other South Asian countries—have immigrated to the United States, bringing with them aspects of their culture. Even though India banned caste discrimination in 1950 and has since adopted affirmative action and other policies to protect so-called “lower” caste individuals, such discrimination continues among South Asian immigrant communities in the United States.

What is caste? 

According to a study on the caste system by the Pew Research Center, the practice has existed in some form in India for at least 3,000 years, with some saying the system is spelled out in Hindu scriptures. It is a deeply rooted system of social hierarchy passed down through families that dictates, for example, the profession a person can have, as well as other aspects of a person’s social life, including whom they can marry.

At the so-called “top” of the hierarchy are the Brahmins, comprised of priests or religious leaders and academics. Then comes the Kshatriyas, who are rulers, administrators, and warriors, followed by Vaishyas, who are artisans, tradesmen, farmers or merchants, and then the Shudras who work as manual laborers. At the very “bottom” of the hierarchy are Dalits, who work as street cleaners or perform other menial tasks. Dalits are often called “Untouchables” because they were forbidden to touch someone in a higher caste. They are segregated from society, and some are barred from places of worship. They also experience prejudice in other areas of life such as housing and education. Many Dalits came to America to escape persecution, only to experience similar discrimination in the United States as those from upper castes often occupy the same workforce here.

Despite India’s ban on caste discrimination, bias against the Dalit people persists to this day. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 51,000 crimes were committed against Dalits in 2021.

Here in the U.S., a 2018 report titled, Caste in the United States, produced by Equality Labs, a South Asian American rights organization based in Oakland, CA, revealed that 67% of the Dalit community felt they were treated unfairly at work due to their caste. The survey, which is the only one of its kind and includes responses from approximately 1,200 Dalits, also revealed that 41% of respondents experienced discrimination in education and 25% of those surveyed said they had been physically assaulted in the United States because of their caste. According to Equality Labs, respondents to the survey came from a wide array of companies and professions, from factory workers at Campbell Soup to skilled workers at Google and other tech companies.

Lawsuit alleges caste discrimination

In July 2020, the California Civil Rights Department sued Cisco Systems, Inc., a Silicon Valley tech company, and two of its managers for discriminating against an engineer. The engineer, who is not named in the suit for fear of retaliation, claimed he was outed as a member of the Dalit caste by his managers, and then denied a raise and opportunities to advance in the company. The lawsuit claims the engineer was retaliated against when he pushed back against “unlawful practices, contrary to the traditional order between the Dalit and higher castes.” Noted in the lawsuit is that the engineer in question worked on a team with other Indians who had emigrated to the United States. With the exception of the engineer, the other members of the team were of a “higher” caste.

According to reporting from The Washington Post, after the Cisco lawsuit was announced, Equality Labs received nearly 260 complaints from workers in the tech industry regarding caste bias. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, told The Washington Post, the complaints included “caste-based slurs and jokes, bullying, discriminatory hiring practices, bias in peer reviews, and sexual harassment.”

“Just like racism, casteism is alive in America and in the tech sector,” Raghav Kaushik, a Microsoft engineer who was born into a “high” caste but for many years has advocated for those in “lower” castes, told The Washington Post. “What is happening at Cisco is not a one-off thing; it’s indicative of a much larger phenomenon.”

Cisco Systems received its first complaint from the engineer in 2016 and investigated. The company said it followed state, federal, and company guidelines surrounding the prohibition against harassment and discrimination in the workforce. It found no wrongdoing by the two managers because caste discrimination is not recognized in the U.S.

Employment law in the United States does not specifically ban caste discrimination; however, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing argues that the Hindu faith’s caste system is based on a protected class—namely religion.

A protected class is a person or group of people who are legally protected from discrimination or harm if they possess certain characteristics. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlined three protected classes—race, religious belief and national origin. Federal laws passed after 1964 increased the number of protected classes to 11, adding, among others, age, sex, which includes sexual orientation, and disability to the list.

In a University of Chicago Law Review article, Guha Krishnamurthi, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, writes that there are reasons to recognize caste discrimination in its own right as it might not fit into one of the defined protected classes.

“The nature of caste as a category is distinctive: it does not squarely fit within race, spans various religions, and is not generally considered an ethnicity,” Professor Krishnamurthi wrote. “Thus, caste discrimination might not be based on the commonly understood categories of race, color, national origin, or ethnicity.”

In April 2023, the California Civil Rights Department dismissed its case against the individual managers at Cisco but are still pursuing litigation against the company.

Protecting against caste in the U.S.

In February 2023, the Seattle City Council voted 6-1 to approve an ordinance that adds caste discrimination to its anti-discrimination laws. The measure bans caste-related discrimination and harassment in employment, public accommodation and housing. Seattle is the first American city to recognize caste discrimination and establish a ban on the practice. In September 2023, Fresno followed suit, passing similar legislation.

California state Senator Aisha Wahab introduced legislation in March 2023 that would add caste as a protected category under California’s anti-discrimination law. The bill passed by a wide margin in the State Assembly and Senate; however, in October 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, claiming the state’s discrimination laws were sufficient to protect citizens from caste bias.

“In California, we believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, or where they live,” Governor Newsom said in a letter notifying lawmakers of his veto. “That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed. Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary.”

Leading the opposition to the California legislation or any legislation banning caste are National Hindu groups such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a Washington, D.C. advocacy group. These groups contend that since the caste system and Hinduism are closely aligned, this type of legislation stigmatizes Hindus and people from South Asia.

HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla told Religious News Service in 2020, “In my work with thousands of Hindus and hundreds of Hindu communities throughout the U.S., caste identity is largely irrelevant in their day-to-day lives and interactions with one another.” Shukla contended that most U.S.-born, second-generation Hindus wouldn’t even know how to identify someone’s caste.

One place where there is growing support for banning caste discrimination is on college campuses. In November 2019, Brandeis University updated its code of conduct and non-discrimination policy to include caste, becoming the first university to do so. Colby College in Maine followed suit in 2021. In 2022, California State University and Brown University updated their policies to include caste. In 2023, Rutgers University faculty approved a contract that included caste discrimination protection.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think of India’s (and other South Asian countries) caste system? What are the similarities between the caste system and Black Americans’ struggle for equality?
  2. Would you favor adding caste discrimination to the list of protected classes? Why or why not?

Glossary Words
diaspora
—the dispersion or spread of a people from their original homeland.
legislation — the enactment of law by a legislative body (ie., Congress or a state legislature).
nonpartisan
— not adhering to any established political group or party.
ordinance
—a piece of legislation enacted by a municipal authority.
veto—to refuse approval or passage of a bill that has been approved by a legislative body. The executive branch of government (President or Governor) has the power to veto, but that power may be overridden with enough support.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of Respect, NJSBF’s diversity & inclusion newsletter.