Caste is part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem: Equality Labs director on Cisco case

"Dominant castes who pride themselves as being only of merit have just converted their caste capital into positions of power throughout the Silicon Valley," says Thenmozhi Soundarajan.
Interview with Equality Labs director on Cisco lawsuit
Interview with Equality Labs director on Cisco lawsuit
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Last week, a landmark lawsuit against a major IT firm in the US made news – the state of California’s Department Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) had sued Cisco and its former managers for allegedly discriminating against a Dalit Indian-American employee on the basis of his caste. In the lawsuit, a 2018 report by Equality Labs was quoted. ‘Caste in the United States’ was based on a survey done in 2016 by the organisation, which had 1,500 respondents. The lawsuit against Cisco noted that according to the report, 67% Dalits surveyed felt discriminated against at the workplace in the US.

“South Asians bring caste wherever they go,” says Thenmozhi Soundarajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs. And according to the Census Bureau's 2018 American Community Survey, 26.5 lakh Indians resided in the US as of 2018. And this is a growing population – between 2010 and 2017, the number of Indian-origin people in America grew by 38%. Given this context, caste finds its way into making the workplace unequitable for Dalit persons even in the US.

In an interview to TNM, Thenmozhi spoke about the significance and implications of the Cisco lawsuit, how caste works in the United States and more.

‘A landmark case’

Thenmozhi states that the lawsuit against Cisco is a landmark case because it is the first civil rights case in the US where a governmental entity is suing an American company for failing to protect caste oppressed employees and creating a hostile workplace. “It has ramifications not just in California but also for all American companies who do business with Indian employees and will impact their practices in their localised offices in India. So, it can have impact on firms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft etc.”

She also criticised the Indian government for failing to prevent caste discrimination and atrocities – not for the lack of legal frameworks, but the structural obstruction of dominant caste networks to implementing the rule of law.

“It is a lack of political will that creates the crisis of caste apartheid. This case in California shows this because an American civil rights team in the largest state of the United States impartially reviewed the discrimination of the Dalit complainant and found that it amply met the parameters for failure to protect Dalit employees. It is a shame on India that an American state could do what the Indian government has failed to do for 40 years since ratifying Ambedkar’s constitution,” Thenmozhi says.  

While the Cisco case has brought caste-based discrimination in the US and in India diaspora to the fore, it is the tip of the iceberg, says Thenmozhi. “This case will create a legal precedent that will open the door for other such cases [to be revealed] across the country. You see similar casteist networks in other fields that have Indian workers […].”

‘Tech isn’t a caste-neutral space’

When the Trump government recently suspended approving of H1-B work visas till the end of 2020, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was among the prominent persons who criticised the move and said that immigration was a major contributor to the US’s economic success. It is also known that a significant portion of Indians who migrate to the US work in the tech and IT sectors. Tech also becomes an area where caste plays a major role in determining opportunities and dynamics.

According to Thenmozhi, caste is a major part of ecosystem of Silicon Valley. “Because of the heavy recruitment from IITs, dominant castes who pride themselves as being only of merit have just converted their caste capital into positions of power throughout the valley. Because of the system of internal referrals many managers recruit within their caste and their family and friends network. Cisco is one of those companies where the caste networks are very tight knit and intimidating to break through,” she says.

And it’s not always explicit either. Thenmozhi explains that a lot of “soft networking” happens at caste functions, so Dalits get passed over or intimidated for work by default of not belonging to Savarna spaces. “It also creates hostile workplaces where Dalits often face invasive questions that attempt to socially locate their caste positionality. That is why many Dalits hide their caste identity,” she adds.

The Equality Labs survey on caste had found that one in two Dalit respondents and one in four Shudra respondents lived in fear of their caste being outed. This, as opposed to only 1% of the Brahmins in the survey who feared their case being outed. It also found that one in four Dalit experienced physical assault, two out of three faced workplace discrimination and one in three felt discriminated against in education.

It doesn’t help that the caste system is not easy to explain to American Human Resource officials, points out Thenmozhi, which makes accessing justice for caste discrimination in American workplaces difficult for those who do speak up.

Apart from workplaces, Thenmozhi points out that another way caste continues in the Silicon Valley is that many of the families of tech workers traffic Dalit and Adivasi domestic workers into the country. “They often are undocumented and paid slave wages like the labour exploitation in India. A few of these workers flee these homes and tell horrific stories of abuse, and many agencies that work around domestic violence and traffic deal with these cases,” she notes.   

‘Need to go beyond whisper networks’

Thenmozhi reveals that apart from being cited in the Cisco lawsuit, the Equality Labs report has also been used in general by American Human Rights Commissions, immigration courts, domestic violence agencies, and Congress to better understand caste discrimination and bias in American institutions.

In fact, a day before the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, a historic Congressional hearing took place at the office of representative Pramila Jayapal in Washington DC. It had representatives from major progressive parties and groups, community leaders from 15 American states, along with Equality Labs in partnership with South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and API Chaya, an organisation that empowers gender-based violence and trafficking survivors by mobilising immigrant communities end exploitation. This briefing was an outcome of Caste in the United States survey by Equality Labs, and was the first time caste-based discrimination in America was acknowledged and discussed in the congressional staff.

However, Thenmozhi adds that their report is a “call to action” for more research in this area.

“We are already getting inundated with caste cases, so it is really powerful to see our communities come forward,” Thenmozhi says. Many have shared with Equality Labs their experiences of caste discrimination anecdotally, in places where there are many South Asians.

“But we need to go beyond the whisper networks and come out and document the networks of dominant caste Hindus that have created discriminatory and hostile workplaces, education institutions, and places of worship,” she asserts.

Thenmozhi also counters the argument that anti-caste rhetoric is an attack on Hinduism. Maintaining that caste is a human rights issue, she argues, “While caste has its origins in Hindu scripture, we find it in other institutions and religions too. We need to stop this red herring argument that deflects from the urgent Dalit communities who are fighting structural discrimination caste atrocity, and exploitation.”

What can companies do to alleviate caste discrimination?

According to the Equality Labs report, apart from 67% Dalits, 12% Shudras surveyed also reported experiencing workplace discrimination. Thenmozhi says that the following can be done to address caste discrimination and make workplaces safer and inclusive for caste oppressed communities.

- Add caste as a protected category to all HR policies and employee training manuals with regards to companies’ discrimination polices.

- Have HR teams and employees undergo caste competency trainings so they can better understand the needs of caste oppressed employees and they know the signs of caste discrimination. 

- Have a zero-tolerance policy for caste hostility in the workplace. This includes bullying, intimidation, favouritism, and more. 

- Create diversity funds to support more caste diverse workplaces with scholarships, training, and coaching for caste oppressed employees so they can thrive and advance in their workplaces. 

(With inputs from Haripriya Suresh)

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