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Should caste be a protected class under our employment laws?

Kentucky and federal anti-discrimination laws protect certain classes of people who have historically suffered from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.

Federal law requires most employers not to discriminate against employees or job applicants based on race, color, religion, national origin and other characteristics. Kentucky’s Civil Rights Act also protects people from discrimination at work based on race, color, national origin and religion, among other things.

According to some workers, however, these laws do not protect against a growing and pernicious form of discrimination: bias against caste.

What is caste?

Caste is a traditional, hereditary form of social and religious stratification within Hindu society. Notably, the Indian caste system’s lowest class, Dalits, previously known as “untouchables,” continue to suffer substantial discrimination in India. While India outlawed caste discrimination in 1948 and enshrined this prohibition in the Indian Constitution, it continues to be a problem there.

Indian Americans in the workforce

There are currently over four million Indian Americans in the U.S. In 2018, Kentucky’s immigrant population made up 4% of our population and of all Kentucky immigrants, 5% were from India, according to the American Immigration Council. Indian Americans are important to our workforce, with many skilled in technology and other professions. The Pew Research Center recently reported, based on U.S. Census data, that of all Asian American groups, Indian Americans have the top median household income ($139,000).

Most are from the upper castes, as they have been the most likely to have the means to emigrate abroad. As more lower-caste people come to the U.S., the problem of caste discrimination at U.S. workplaces has grown.

For example, last summer, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing brought a caste discrimination lawsuit against Cisco Systems. While neither federal nor California law includes caste within their protected classes, the California agency based its caste discrimination claim on “religion, ancestry, national origin/ethnicity, and race/color.”

The agency alleged that two supervisors of Indian descent “outed” a third Indian employee as belonging to a lower caste and of having benefitted from an affirmative action program in India. The employee complained and the two supervisors allegedly retaliated against him by denying him opportunities for advancement.

Since the Cisco lawsuit, some organizations across the nation have been passing resolutions officially recognizing caste as a protected class.

Is caste discrimination a problem in the US?

Some argue that caste is a uniquely Indian phenomenon and that enshrining caste as a protected characteristic will only bring problems that don’t currently exist in the U.S. However, people who identify as Dalit have alleged that upper-caste Indian co-workers or supervisors have used caste to discriminate against them.

Others have argued that prohibiting caste discrimination would require the government to define Hinduism, which would violate the First Amendment. And, like the California lawsuit, some assert that caste falls logically within current protected categories like national origin or religion.

Both sides of the debate told reporters they are ready for a long fight. If you are a Kentucky employer, do you think caste discrimination should be illegal?