The Battle Against Caste Discrimination in the U.S. is Rooted in Bad Policy
By Ashwin Arab
More than any other group, Indian Americans have achieved a level of success greater than many others. From tech CEOs to journalists, comedians, actors, elected officials, doctors, and musicians, the community has a lot for which to be proud.
Nowhere is this success more apparent than in the state of California, all the way on the west coast of the United States, home to Silicon Valley and all the most valuable tech companies in the world. It’s here that in 2021, in the haze of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Dalit advocacy group called Equality Labs first approached the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission to take cognizance of caste discrimination taking place in Silicon Valley. The group’s most visible face and executive director is Thenmozhi Soundararajan. She identifies as a Dalit and an Ambedkarite and introduced a motion to add caste as a protected class in the county and alter all local government forms to include caste as a field—like other personal identifiers such as race, religion, gender, disability status, and veteran status, among others.
Enter CoHNA (the Coalition of Hindus of North America)—which organized an enormous phone call campaign during several open comment sessions. Through several hours of phone calls in combative city council meetings, the impassioned Hindu community made their dislike of the ordinance clear. Although the commission did not officially junk the ordinance, it quietly fell into obscurity from where it was never brought up again.
Equality Labs and Ms. Soundararajan continued actively building alliances with the labor movement and social justice movement to tie caste identity into the larger American Left ecosystem. From this emerged a new one—“the caste equity movement.” “Equity” is a social justice term that refers to “equality of outcome” in contrast to the previous generations goal—“equality”— which refers to “equality of opportunity.” Equality is a vision that advocates for everyone to start the race of life in the same place while acknowledging that some will finish first and others finish after.
Although the term “equity” is new to American audiences, it should not be a new one for Indians. The United States already has programs in place to address historical wrongs done to African-Americans and Latinos in the form of affirmative action - preference in college admissions—and more recently, racial hiring quotas set by private sector companies. In India, “equity” is known more commonly as “reservation.” One can assume that Equality Labs aims for the same along caste lines in American tech companies.
In the meantime, Cisco Systems was sued by a self-proclaimed Dalit employee who claimed that his manager was a Brahmin—although his manager publicly declared he is irreligious for over 20 years—, and due to caste discrimination, was held back from projects and promotion. In February 2023, Kshama Sawant, an unpopular Indian-origin Seattle city council member introduced an ordinance along the same lines to ban caste discrimination. Seattle is the headquarters for Amazon and Microsoft but does not have a large ethnically Indian population as compared to Santa Clara and Silicon Valley. Sawant, the only openly socialist member to be voted into Seattle since 1916, introduced the bill alongside the familiar face of Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who was still the executive director at Equality Labs at the time.
Hindu advocacy groups led by CoHNA once again sprang into action, mobilizing Hindus on the ground in Seattle, dutifully attending public comment sessions to make impassioned pleas, and attempting to open a dialogue with a largely unfriendly media to make their case. From the get-go, CoHNA made it clear that they abhor caste discrimination. Dalits and “lower” caste members of CoHNA were vocal that this law would institutionalize the very thing Equality Labs claimed to be fighting. CoHNA made the strong case that although the language of the ordinance identifies caste among many religions and ethnicities, that Hindus are most closely associated with caste. It very clearly paints a target on the backs of Hindu-Americans and Indians and creates a presumption of guilt. There are no clear ways to identify caste or implement anti-caste discrimination laws in America.
On the day of the vote, despite a presence in the city council chambers, they were outnumbered by Equality Labs supporters who ranged from Ambedkarites to labor union workers to LGBT representatives. When city councilors officially voted, many of them openly admitted that they knew nothing about caste or the history of India. They said, however, that they didn’t need to know that history to feel good about their decision to pass it because it would reduce the harm that Dalits claimed to be experiencing.
Of the nine city councilors, only one dissented. Sara Nelson voted “No”. She asked whether the Seattle City Council had any data to support Equality Labs and Sawant’s claims of “widespread and systemic” caste discrimination. She also made the point that without ways to identify caste, there would be no way to implement it properly. How exactly do you determine who is an “upper” caste and who is a “lower caste”? And if you can’t determine what caste someone belongs to, how do you litigate that case?
Even if you could identify someone’s caste, what would the city do if someone from a “lower caste” attempted to sue someone from another “lower caste”? If someone chooses not to identify with a caste and someone accuses them of caste discrimination, will the city of Seattle force a caste upon them? Councilor Nelson’s questions went unanswered, and the ordinance is currently active in Seattle. There is currently no active case about caste discrimination in the city. This only adds bigger questions to Equality Lab’s claims that caste discrimination is “widespread and systemic” are easily challenged. The basis for the debunked claim is a 2019 survey it conducted by posting it on the popular social media site Reddit and asking respondents to forward it to interested participants.
Needless to say, this is problematic for a variety of reasons: anyone in the world can anonymously respond which means it’s not specific to the United States; the sample is far from representative (ex. 40% of its respondents identify as LGBT while the national average is 7.2%). Despite its many problems, Equality Labs has benefited from the current zeitgeist and gained institutional credibility due to its political stances and alliances. Thankfully, we can reference a rigorous study from the Carnegie Endowment which largely disagrees with Equality Labs’ findings.
Instead, they found that there is very little caste identification among Indian Americans, especially in those born in America and that there is even less discrimination actually experienced. It is very far from widespread and systemic.
This study acknowledges the Equality Labs one and criticizes the findings and methodology, most notably that Equality Labs simply removed responses where people did not identify with a caste at all.
Since then, there has been a flurry of activity. In March 2023, Senator Aisha Wahab introduced SB403 in the California Senate, the upper house of the legislature. The bill aims to amend the civil rights protections for the state and its forty million residents by adding caste as a protected class. Despite CoHNA’s best attempts to open a dialogue with Senator Wahab, she has refused. Members who went to her office were met with aggressive staffers who once again admitted that they knew very little about caste or how it functioned. None of them knew what the words “varna” and “jaati” meant or their importance to the discussion.
The Indian American community responded by showing up in the hundreds to peacefully protest outside Senator Wahab’s office and hopefully bring media attention to the Hindu community’s grievances against SB 403. CoHNA has been clear from the outset that in a democracy, no one should be able to write laws that directly affect the Hindu community without our consultation. Equality Labs is a for-profit organization that sells DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) education services to corporate entities on caste. Advocating for a bill that will necessitate its services to explain caste in a variety of contexts is no doubt a conflict of interest.
As of this publication, the bill passed the Senate and is now moving through the Assembly. The Hindu community continues to fight back against this legislation. Without guidelines on how it will be implemented, it has the opportunity for great misuse. Hindu children will now be looked at with suspicion in college admissions if they choose not to identify as caste because Equality Labs says that this is a mark of privilege and indicates “higher caste” or “oppressor caste”. Hindu and Indian employees will now be looked at with suspicion because employers simply won’t want to deal with frivolous lawsuits, such as Cisco. And finally, it paints the entire Hindu religion in the way Equality Labs would like - as irredeemable and worthy of dismantling - as Soundararajan has stated in multiple interviews and tweets.