Caste bias may pose new litigation risk

The EEOC has long taken the position that discrimination between members of protected classes is just as illegal under Title VII as discrimination by members of a majority class against minorities. Example: It is illegal for light-skinned blacks to discriminate against dark-skinned blacks.

Now there is a growing interest in a different form of intraracial discrimination: bias by some Indian Americans against members of lower castes. A new survey shows that caste bias is a real issue in some industries and workplaces.

Background: Immigration from India to the United States grew almost 70% between 2000 and 2010, and more than three million Indian Americans now live here. They make up particularly large populations in tech-heavy communities in and around Silicon Valley and Seattle.

Many South Asian immigrants brought with them the concept of castes, centuries-old social divisions of class and socio-economic status rooted in Hinduism. In India, individuals have traditionally been assigned societal roles—including professions—based on their caste at birth.

Early arriving immigrants were often from higher castes, well educated and prepared for high-wage careers. Some more recent arrivals belong to lower castes, having won admission to the U.S. through the diversity lottery and work-based visa quotas.

Now, it appears some higher-caste Indian Americans may be discriminating against lower-caste, more recent arrivers. According to a new survey by the research firm Equality Labs, two-thirds of the lowest caste Indian Americans—the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”—report workplace discrimination by higher-caste members. A quarter of Dalits say they have faced verbal or physical assaults because of their caste; 20% say they have suffered discrimination at a place of business.

Advice: This is uncharted territory for many HR professionals. If your organization has many Indian American workers, consider addressing caste discrimination in your anti-discrimination policy and training materials. Make it clear your organization won’t tolerate caste discrimination.

Learn about caste discrimination and the Equality Labs survey at