California one step closer to banning casteism in the workplace

by Rushing McCarl LLP Oct. 02, 2023

This month, the California Senate passed a new civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of ancestry or caste. This bill comes on the heels of an ongoing landmark case targeting caste discrimination in California’s workplaces.

The effects of the Southeast Asian caste system have traveled beyond the Indian subcontinent through the Indian Diaspora, including to Silicon Valley. The caste system places individuals in fixed positions of a graded social hierarchy that forms the basis for familial, social, and economic relations. In casteism, individuals born into a low caste are subjected to lifelong discrimination characterized by pervasive forms of condescension, exclusion, and derogation. Despite efforts by the Indian government to address the inequities of the caste system through affirmative action programs, the societal scheme still pervades life in India today, affecting everything from rights and entitlements to work, education, and civic life. As a recent case highlighted, this casteism also affects individuals in California.

In California Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Cisco Systems, Inc., the State of California alleged that Cisco Systems, a major tech-industry employer, discriminated against an Indian employee because the employee was a Dalit — a member of the lowest caste. Rushing McCarl filed an amicus brief for the Ambedkar International Center (and 19 other signatories) arguing that any such discrimination is incompatible with the values of equality and human rights underlying the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other antidiscrimination laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Ambedkar International Center is an organization that vociferously advocates for a just Indian society and the abolition of caste-based discrimination.

The Cisco lawsuit received international attention in the United States, India, and elsewhere. As an early voice on the issue of casteism in the workplace, Rushing McCarl was invited to speak about caste discrimination to the New Jersey Civil Rights Commission, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, and other federal agencies.

In a victory against casteism, the California Senate passed SB 403 on September 5, 2023. The bill modifies existing California civil rights law to include a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of ancestry and caste. If Governor Gavin Newsom signs the bill into law, California will be the first in the United States to ban caste discrimination.

Rushing McCarl is proud to have supported the Ambedkar International Center and others who signed its amicus brief in the DFEH v. Cisco case and will continue to lead on civil rights advocacy in employment law.