Caste discrimination cause for concern among US organisations
Concerns over discrimination based on Indian caste differences have been gaining ground in the United States. In April, over 450 Indian Americans debated on the issue of caste at a hearing held by the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission in California. The hearing was in response to concerns over caste discrimination being raised at some of the Silicon Valley technology companies which employ hundreds of highly skilled workers of Indian origin.
Earlier, the Cal State Student Association (CSSA) — a students’ body that represents 23 campuses of the California State University system – had passed a resolution supporting the addition of caste as a protected category against discrimination. The students’ body directed the university board of trustees to add caste in the system’s anti-discrimination policy and provide resources to its staff members to better understand the subject.
The CSSA resolution, passed in April this year, cited a survey by Equality Labs — a US-based South Asian organisation working to end caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, white supremacy and religious intolerance — on ‘caste in the United States’ which said 25 per cent of Dalits reported verbal or physical assault based on their caste in the US. The survey stated that one in three Dalit students reported being discriminated during their education in the country. Two out of three Dalits surveyed reported being treated unfairly at their workplace.
This resolution is stated to be an important step in addressing caste-based discrimination on campus, which has long been overlooked by American institutions. Significantly, Brandeis University was the first US university to ban caste-based discrimination. University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University, too, have begun to explore caste issues on their campuses.
However, not all Indian Americans believe that discrimination based on caste should be recognised as a special category and opinion is, in fact, sharply divided on the issue. At the Santa Clara commission hearing, Suhag Shukla — executive director and legal counsel of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) — had said in her testimony that specific incidents of caste-based discrimination at work and school should be brought to light, thoroughly investigated, and rectified under existing law, and by extension, existing county and company policies.
“The solution to addressing caste-based discrimination is not in the creation of caste as a specific category, but rather enforcing existing law, educating people of their rights, ensuring companies are compliant with their legal obligations, and cultural competency training as our communities and companies grow increasingly diverse,” she said.
In her opinion, caste is a stereotype uniquely associated with Indians and Hindus and a proposal to create a separate category of caste-based discrimination would uniquely target South Asians, Indians, and Hindus for ethno-religious profiling, monitoring, and policing. HAF, as an organisation, takes the position that while stopping potential and alleged incidents of caste-based discrimination is an important goal, the solution to the problem is applying existing non-discrimination law.
“Adding caste as a separate category would be the only legal category that applies uniquely to one group of people and it would be nearly impossible to implement without profiling that group, and would ultimately be counter-productive to simply using existing prohibitions on discrimination based on national origin, ethnic ancestry, and the like,” Mat McDermott, senior director of communications at HAF, told TIMES OF INDIA
The larger context of this debate on caste is California’s ongoing lawsuit against Silicon Valley-based technology major Cisco Systems alleging caste discrimination in the workplace. Furthermore, Ambedkar International Centre, a US-based non-profit organisation, has filed an amicus curiae brief with the court as a party which has an interest in the outcome of the case.
Recently, the Alphabet Workers Union, representing workers of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries, said it stood in support of the recent “historic” lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for discrimination on the basis of caste. The Union has gone a step further and passed a resolution demanding that caste be added as a protected category both in Alphabet as well as in the United States.
The leadership of the union believes that casteism is increasingly becoming a cause for concern in US workplaces. “The recent lawsuit against Cisco highlights how caste discrimination affects American workers, and my colleagues at Google have reported similar experiences. Caste discrimination and casteism are endemic in the American technology industry and around the world,” Andrew Gainer-Dewar, a software engineer in Google’s Massachusetts office and a member of the Alphabet
Workers Union, told TIMESOFINDIA.com. “US labour laws protect workers from discrimination on the basis of certain specific characteristics, including race, sex, and national origin, but it does not explicitly prohibit caste discrimination. So the existing national legal framework is not adequate to address casteism in the workplace.”