The caste system is a hierarchical system that determines a person’s social status by birth. It has its roots in Hinduism, but later spread to members of other religions in South Asia. Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, have been relegated to the bottom of the South Asian pecking order, although India legally abolished the concept of “untouchability” decades ago.
But caste-based discrimination remains entrenched in society, and activists say similar practices have followed the South Asian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere. More recently, efforts have been made to address caste-based prejudice in workplaces in Silicon Valley and Seattle, where there are many tech professionals of South Asian descent. More than 150,000 people of South Asian descent live in Washington state, with many living in the Seattle area, according to the city council.
Seattle’s measure would prevent businesses from discriminating based on caste in employment, public spaces and housing, Sawant said when introducing the measure.
India’s engineers have thrived in Silicon Valley. So is its caste system.
“This is a national problem,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights group in California. He said his organization had received complaints from more than 250 workers, many of whom had received complaints “under caste slurs, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, retaliation and firing at workplaces”.
According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, societies in the Africa, Middle East and Pacific region also have caste-based systems of exclusion. 250 million people suffer from such discrimination.
The Seattle move was resisted The Hindu American Foundation, said it was against caste-based discrimination but argued that the move would isolate its community. In a statement on Tuesday, it said it was exploring “all avenues to respond”.
Dalit rights groups have documented examples of caste bias in the United States.
In June 2020, Cisco and two of its former managers were sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging discrimination against a Dalit engineer. (Last summer, the case was ongoing.)
Google’s plan to address casteism has led to ‘divisiveness and hysteria’
A group of 30 Indian women engineers who worked at tech companies including Google and Apple released a report in October 2020. They called working with Indian managers a “living hell” and said that because caste was not a protected class, they had no way to report discrimination to their companies.
Educational institutions were some of the first institutions in the United States to enact safeguards against caste discrimination. The California State University The organization last year included caste as a protected category under its anti-discrimination policy. (Two Hindu professors sued against this move.)
Yashika Dutt, who grew up in a Dalit family in small-town India and now lives in New York, said she feels more comfortable establishing her identity in America, even though caste bias is “still very much there.”
Dutt, author of the 2019 memoir “He comes out as Dalit” While living in America, she said she made decisions that factored her caste in, such as not living in neighborhoods with a large South Asian population and not working in the tech industry.
“It’s a brutal system that dehumanizes you,” he said after the Seattle vote. “Finally, people will have some protection.”
Nitasha Diku contributed to this report.