California is on its way to becoming the first state to outlaw caste discrimination, a prejudice that originated in South Asia which many immigrants believe has followed them to the United States.
Earlier this month, a bill passed in California’s legislature that would make caste discrimination illegal in the state, including in employment and recruitment situations. The law would function in the same manner as the laws against discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation. Senate Bill 403, as it’s known, is now awaiting a signature from California’s governor, Gavin Newsom.
The issue made its way to the halls of state government after members of California’s South Asian community, specifically those with Dalit ancestry, voiced concerns that they were being ostracized or otherwise treated differently by other members of the community based on their caste.
Opponents of the bill within the community call this discrimination rare and believe that legislation could single out South Asian people and encourage stereotypes around holding antiquated beliefs.
The caste system is a social hierarchy that is thousands of years old and has its roots in India. The Dalits, who were known historically as “the untouchables,” were long oppressed as the lowest caste under this rigid system.
Discrimination based on caste, including bias in recruitment, was made illegal in countries including India and Nepal in the mid-20th century. However, this was not the end of the issue and this prejudice continues to be reported today.
With an estimated 5.4 million people in the South Asian community in the United States, some immigrants and Americans of South Asian descent now believe that America needs to adopt similar laws that will prevent people from being refused work or housing based simply on their ancestry. This is especially relevant in Silicon Valley, where South Asians make up a large portion of tech workers.
A major spark for the legislation came from a case in 2020, where tech company Cisco was sued by California on behalf of an employee who claimed he was being discriminated against based on his caste. The employee, who has Dalit roots, said that two superiors of upper caste ancestry denied him opportunities and paid him less than other employees.
“Just like racism, casteism is alive in America and in the tech sector,” Seattle-based Microsoft engineer and activist Raghav Kaushik told Washington Post at the time of the filing. “What is happening at Cisco is not a one-off thing; it’s indicative of a much larger phenomenon.”
Though the case against the two engineers was dismissed earlier this year, the lawsuit provided ammunition and motivation for activists to pursue change at the government level.
A number of Indian Americans in California have even gone on hunger strike, demanding that Gov. Newsom signs the bill.
Yet other members of the community have questioned the bill, saying that it would constitute racial profiling and unfairly target South Asian Americans.
In the case of the Cisco lawsuit, Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation expressed that “the state has no right to attribute wrongdoing to Hindu and Indian Americans simply because of their religion or ethnicity.” She added of the dismissal: “Two Indian Americans endured a nearly three year nightmare of unending investigations, a brutal online witch hunt and a presumption of guilt in the media.”
Shukla also co-wrote a recent letter to Senator Aisha Wahab, who wrote the bill currently on Gov. Newsom’s desk.
“SB-403 unfairly maligns, targets and racially profiles select communities on the basis of their national origin, ethnicity and ancestry for disparate treatment, thereby violating the very laws it seeks to amend,” the letter said. “Additionally, this language also unfairly assigns or institutionalizes a presumptive status of ‘oppressor’ to all South Asians who do not identify as or are not perceived as Dalit or Adivas.”
Gov. Newsom has yet to comment on the new bill.
Talent acquisition professionals in California should be aware of the potential for caste discrimination in the workplace and take steps to prevent it, such as training employees on the issue and creating a workplace culture where everyone feels welcome and respected. By taking these steps and committing to DEI as a core value, you can help to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace for all employees.
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