Heidi Reavis Discusses Caste Bias and Discrimination in the U.S. with Bloomberg Law

On June 30, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco Systems Inc. for discrimination on behalf of John Doe, an Indian engineer at Cisco’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Doe was born into the Dalit population in India, which is considered the lowest caste in the country’s hierarchical system. As such, he was treated differently by his fellow South Asian colleagues despite being in the U.S. with our supposed race protections. He experienced inferior workplace conditions, lower pay and fewer opportunities than his colleagues.

The suit, which Bloomberg Law discusses in its July 17 article, “Caste Bias Lawsuit Against Cisco Tests Rare Workplace Claim,” examines the effects of globalization on U.S. discrimination laws as some workers from different countries and cultures carry their cultural biases to the United States. Although some of Doe’s claims fall into categories protected under current U.S. law, they actually are not fully appropriate categories for all of the claims. And while Dalit rights activists are pushing for legislation to create a new protected class for caste bias in the U.S., in the meantime it seems human resources departments here do not yet know how to detect or manage this form of sociocultural discrimination. In the case between John Doe and Cisco, the Cisco HR department claimed that caste discrimination is not unlawful.

Bloomberg reached out to RPJ partner Heidi Reavis, who regularly represents both employers and employees in workplace disputes, for comment. She pointed out that considering how Cisco participates heavily in the H-1B visa program, and hires numerous employees from India and other parts of South Asia, the company can’t be ignorant of the caste system and should be held accountable. “When Cisco’s HR representatives knowingly and continuously dismissed Doe’s several complaints, they effectively sanctioned the company’s harmful anti-Dalit discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” she said. “Doe came in with a few wounds; HR put his blood in the water.”

The article continues to discuss the protected categories under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to which Reavis adds that Doe has numerous categories of claims supported by Title VII, including intra-ethnic claims. “As Doe alleges, the discriminatory treatment appears to have been motivated by the color of Doe’s skin and his particular national origin, being of Dalit Indian origin and more darker-complexioned than non-Dalit Indians,” she said. “That the Indian caste system originated in India does not shield caste-based discrimination from coverage of Title VII here.”

Other experts in the article also remark on the fine line between discrimination based on skin color and discrimination based on caste, and note the comparison can be a tool for establishing a more refined framework of understanding caste and other intra-ethnic distinctions in America.

Read the full article on Bloomberg Law here.