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California Workplace Discrimination System Sheds Light On Caste System


This summer, a tech worker filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit in California. The remarkable thing is that the lawsuit isn't about sexual orientation, or gender, or disability. It is about caste, a social hierarchy in India. The suit claims that caste discrimination is a problem in Silicon Valley, too. Here's NPR's Derek Arthur.


DEREK ARTHUR, BYLINE: An Indian tech worker who uses the name Sam Cornelius to speak to the media because he fears for his safety, first started coming to the U.S. from his native India in the mid-1990s. He's been an IT contractor at several companies, including the tech giant Cisco. And from the beginning, he loved living in the U.S.

SAM CORNELIUS: The people were so encouraging, you know? Hey, we are going to this swimming classes. Do you want to join us? And things like that.

ARTHUR: His American co-workers asked him about India. They didn't ask him about his caste. Cornelius is a Dalit, the caste formerly known as untouchable. In India, they face disproportionate violence. Dalit women are raped more than women of other castes. Dalit men get lynched for falling in love with dominant caste women. Growing up, Cornelius says he heard anti-Dalit insults on the sports field. He wasn't welcome in everyone's homes. But in the U.S., nobody seemed to even know what caste was, and that was liberating.

CORNELIUS: That is a really great feeling, you know, that yes, now everything I will be judged by exactly what I deserve.

ARTHUR: Over the years, more Indians came to the U.S. to work in tech, most of them from dominant castes like the Brahmins. Cornelius said they try to suss out his caste by asking about his surname, his hometown, even his diet.

CORNELIUS: People ask, oh, are you vegetarian? Because Brahmins are vegetarians. Even if you say, but yes, I am a vegetarian - if you are an Indian, asking an Indian to find out a caste, you would say, are you vegetarian by birth or by choice?

ARTHUR: He says he tries to dodge these questions. He's worried about losing his job and protecting his family. And most U.S. companies do not list caste in their anti-discrimination policies.

Then this summer, the state of California sued Cisco Systems on behalf of a Dalit engineer, just like Cornelius, on an all-Indian work team. The lawsuit claims that when the engineers' dominant caste bosses found out his caste, they discriminated against him and then retaliated when he complained to HR. Cornelius says he and Dalits like him were very excited to see the lawsuit.

CORNELIUS: Somebody finally suing a big corporation like Cisco was the most delightful news I heard in quite some time.

ARTHUR: The Cisco case is awaiting trial, but already it has people in Silicon Valley talking.

THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: I want to welcome you to this town hall on caste in tech.

ARTHUR: Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan runs the human rights group Equality Labs, which hosted a virtual town hall following the lawsuit. Soundararajan says that in response to a survey, the group received more than 300 complaints from other South Asians reporting caste discrimination in the U.S. tech sector.

SOUNDARARAJAN: From Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Amazon, Dell, Twitter, Uber...

ARTHUR: But not a single complainant went to HR.

SOUNDARARAJAN: Not a single person because of the H-1B.

ARTHUR: The H-1B visa, the same visa that Sam Cornelius is on. If you lose your job, you have to leave the States. And she says...

SOUNDARARAJAN: It's not just about losing your work, it's losing your status. One out of 2 Dalit respondents in our survey said they live in fear of being outed.

ARTHUR: Just like Cornelius. Suraj Yengde is a Dalit scholar at Harvard. He credits the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the Cisco case, for drawing attention to different types of discrimination in America, including caste.

SURAJ YENGDE: People are coming to recognize now the sibling relationship of caste and race.

ARTHUR: Yengde says a verdict in the Cisco case could transform workplace discrimination laws in America by forcing U.S. companies to make caste a protected category.

YENGDE: They need to add the caste clause because it's a reality. When you have a sizable number of Indian employees working with you, you cannot afford to have an ignorance on this matter.

ARTHUR: It's not only about discrimination. It's also about hiring. Most Indians in the U.S. are from dominant castes. They're often the ones with the money and resources to get here.

Ajantha Subramanian is another Harvard professor who spoke at the Caste in Tech town hall. She says U.S. tech companies need to do a better job of recruiting from oppressed castes.

AJANTHA SUBRAMANIAN: There needs to be a much more concerted effort to expand the scope of academic and corporate recruitment to explicitly favor underrepresented caste groups and to recruit from lower-tier engineering colleges in India, which are populated by oppressed castes.

ARTHUR: As for Cornelius, the Dalit tech worker, he said that until there's a diversity and protection of caste in Silicon Valley, it remains too risky to speak openly. Derek Arthur, NPR News.

KING: That story came from NPR's Rough Translation podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Derek Arthur
Derek Arthur (he/him) is a production assistant on NPR's Rough Translation podcast.