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Caste Discrimination in the American Workplace: A Legal Primer for Employment Attorneys


The American workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. While federal anti-discrimination laws protect employees based on race, religion, color, national origin, sex, and other categories, a new challenge is emerging: caste discrimination against South Asian and other US workers. This blog post will explore the concept of caste, its manifestations in the American workplace, and the evolving legal landscape surrounding caste discrimination claims.

Understanding Caste

The caste system is a complex social hierarchy primarily associated with India, with roots in Hinduism. It divides individuals into hereditary social classes, determining social status, occupation, and opportunities throughout life. The system defines various castes, with Dalits or "untouchables" occupying the lowest rung, historically facing severe social and economic marginalization. 

Caste Discrimination in the US

While the rigid caste system may not be directly replicated in the United States, recent years have seen an increase in reports of caste discrimination among South Asian American workers, particularly in tech sectors with a high concentration of Indian immigrants. This discrimination can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Denial of promotions or training opportunities based on perceived caste.

  • Segregation within the workplace based on caste affiliation.

  • Unequal treatment in performance evaluations.

  • Hostile work environment based on caste stereotypes.

The Legal Landscape

Currently, no federal law explicitly recognizes caste as a protected category. However, two jurisdictions, Seattle and Fresno, have enacted local ordinances prohibiting caste discrimination. Additionally, some legal arguments propose extending existing federal anti-discrimination laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to encompass caste discrimination. These arguments focus on the potential overlap between caste and protected categories like race, national origin, and religion.

Challenges and Considerations

Despite the growing recognition of caste discrimination, several challenges remain:

  • Limited Legal Precedent: The lack of federal legislation and limited case law create uncertainty for both employees and employers.

  • Cultural Sensitivity: Investigating caste discrimination requires cultural sensitivity to understand indirect forms of discrimination and avoid perpetuating stereotypes.

  • Potential for Misunderstandings: Concerns exist regarding potential "Hinduphobia" or stereotyping of all South Asian Americans based on caste.

Recommendations for Employment Attorneys

Employment attorneys can play a crucial role in addressing caste discrimination by:

  • Staying Informed: Staying current on legal developments regarding caste discrimination, including local ordinances and relevant case law.

  • Culturally Competent Investigations: Conducting investigations with sensitivity to cultural nuances surrounding caste. This might involve consulting with experts on South Asian cultures or collaborating with foreign colleagues with relevant expertise.

  • Advocacy for Clients: Effectively representing clients who experience caste discrimination, exploring potential legal options under existing anti-discrimination laws and considering creative arguments to expand legal protections.

  • Create Organizational Caste Policies. Including caste as a protected status in your already existing harassment policies is a huge step in the right direction and allows your organization to get ahead of the slow wheels of justice that will, almost inevitably, recognize that caste discrimination is also an illegal outcrop of either national origin or race protections.  

Caste discrimination is a complex issue with growing relevance in the American workplace. While the legal landscape is evolving, employment attorneys can play a vital role in protecting South Asian American workers from caste-based discrimination. By staying informed and conducting culturally sensitive investigations, attorneys can help ensure a more just and equitable workplace for all.