Should people be protected by law against caste-based discrimination at workplaces in Silicon Valley? The Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission in California is not convinced yet, despite seven hours and 30 minutes of Zoom discussions.
The Indian-American community is, of course, deeply divided on whether caste should be considered as a protected category along with race, gender, sexuality. Groups such as Equality Labs say caste discrimination in America is real and there is an urgency for the law to step in. Others such as the Hindu American Foundation believe US law taking cognizance of caste would lead to Hinduphobia and anti-India sentiments.
In July 2020, Dalit rights groups in California approached a Santa Clara county human rights commissioner, who informed the commission about caste oppression at workplaces in Silicon Valley.
Finding it a matter of concern, the commission decided to explore and have a public forum first, before making it a part of the county legislation.
On April 29 this year, the commission hosted that forum discussion virtually over Zoom. The tense debate lasted for over seven hours and 30 minutes, and was attended by 500 people.
More than 290 people shared public testimonies, “including specific members from two groups who asked to speak as organized groups,” according to a communique from the commission’s ad hoc committee.
“At the start of the forum, we heard from six experts that included four academic researchers, one representative from Alphabet’s workers union, and one member of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council (SiVIC), a local interfaith organization,” the commission said in its release.
“All six experts recognized the reality of Dalit and caste-oppressed disenfranchisement…
“After the expert testimonies, two groups came forward with a request for 20 minutes of speaking time,” the commission said. “Equality Labs stated their opinion that there is a need for legal protections for Dalit and other caste-oppressed people, while the Hindu American Foundation shared their opinion that adding caste discrimination to nondiscrimination policies and laws would lead to Hinduphobia and anti-India sentiment.”
After the 20 minutes allotted to each group, members of the public were given the opportunity to address the commission with one-minute testimonies from each person.
Around 60 percent of the individuals wanted caste as a protected class, while the rest specifically opposed that idea.
The commission also received “a variety of written testimony through e-mail messages and letters.”
The commission said it “will consider adding Caste Discrimination as an item to focus item in our 2022 fiscal year workplan (pending Commission review and approval). This might lead to a set of recommendations on how best to reconcile the concerns brought forth to the commission from the public on this matter.”
Asked if that meant putting the issue on hold, Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission chair Bryan Franzen told indica News: “On hold is not accurate. Working on an issue like this takes time.”
The forum, he said, was “another step moving the issue further. Our hope in the next fiscal year (which starts in July) we will form another group to continue to research the issues and explore appropriate ways to move forward.”
Information presented and testimonies delivered during the public forum suggest that there may be serious issues with discrimination against the Dalit and caste-oppressed communities in Santa Clara County, he acknowledged.
“While this issue is currently being reviewed in the courts, members of the public indicated that the caste-oppressed community is left feeling vulnerable, and they feel an urgency to have their safety and wellbeing assured,” Franzen said.
He was referring to the Cisco case that led to Dalit rights groups such as Equality Lab and Ambedkar King Study Circle to come forward and highlight the issue.