Like many recent arrivals to the Bay Area, Prem Pariyar, now a social worker, searched for work and a home within communities of fellow immigrants.
So when coworkers at a South Asian restaurant refused to room with him in an apartment his employer provided, he was shocked by their reason: his caste. Not his race, religion or nationality, but the centuries-old social hierarchies still prevalent in some South Asian societies.
Pariyar is Dalit, which means “broken” in Sanskrit and is considered the lowest-ranking caste, formerly known as “untouchables.” In Nepal, he said, his family faced violence and harassment. He thought that he had escaped that here.
“I was speechless,” he said of his coworkers’ actions, which left him depressed and living in a van for a month in 2015 until he quit the restaurant. “Why did these people practice these kinds of things here in the U.S.?”
Today Pariyar, who won asylum and became a U.S. citizen, is one of California’s most vocal activists for a ban on caste discrimination. After successfully pushing for California State University to adopt a ban in 2022, Pariyar is focused on getting protections for so-called lower-caste people into the state’s fair housing and employment laws.
Legislation to do that is contentious. In April, it drew one of the largest public hearing turnouts for any bill before California’s Legislature this session. It would be the first statewide measure of its kind in the nation, although Seattle became the first city in the US and the first jurisdiction outside South Asia to ban caste-based discrimination when it passed a similar ordinance in February.
In 2020, Brandeis University became the first university to ban caste-based discrimination. Harvard University, California State University, the University of California, Davis and Brown University followed.
While many Californians may never know anyone who experiences caste discrimination, or even what it is, for some, it’s both hidden and inescapable.
For many worshipers at Shri Guru Ravidass Temple on the outskirts of Sacramento, the issue is about their families’ futures: Will the discrimination they experienced as Dalits in India follow them to California? Will it stop their children from achieving the American Dream?
Followers of the Ravidass religion, which is related to Sikhism, belong to the Dalit caste but formed their distinct faith as a move against caste discrimination. On a recent Sunday, between services and a meal, members swapped anecdotes about discrimination they encountered, including in the U.S.
In social settings among other South Asians, they said, they’ve heard derogatory comments about Dalits. One man, a hospital janitor, believes he got tougher assignments because his supervisors and colleagues from upper castes played favorites.
Some said bosses, coworkers and classmates asked probing questions — about their last names, the temple they attended, their relatives’ jobs back home — that to an outsider may seem innocuous, but are common ways to discern someone’s caste background in India.
Several who work as truck drivers said, the legacy of the caste system had already shaped the trajectory of their lives, because it limits the jobs and education available to them both in India and now the U.S.
“It was really hard for our people to get up, to get a high-paying job and higher education,” said Raj Rohl, 40. “We struggled a lot. We don’t want that to happen here, so our kids struggle again here to get the education they want, to get the jobs they want.”
“Honestly, we don’t really deal with that many Brahmins here,” said Raj Vadhan, 50, referring to the highest caste classification. The bill, he said, would help more with “discrimination going on at the upper-level jobs, the higher-paying jobs.”
South Asians on the other side of the debate say the bill is unnecessary — and unfair.
“To tackle discrimination, we have very strong existing laws and existing protections under categories of ancestry and national origin. They can, and should, be used to deal with any issues of caste-based discrimination as they arise — and they have actually already been used,” said Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group opposing the bill.
“Creating an entire separate category and law that only applies to minority communities is inconsistent with our constitutional norms.”
Bill’s Historical Roots
Sen. Aisha Wahab, a first-term Democrat from Fremont, wants to add caste as a protected category to the state Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state policy that bans discrimination in public schools.
“As our state and country become more and more diverse, our laws have to go further and deeper and clarify more specifically, what is being protected,” she said. “And caste discrimination is something that should not take place here in the United States, let alone in California.”
The Senate approved her bill, SB 403, on a 34-1 vote on May 11, but advocacy groups opposed to the measure will try again to kill or change it in the Assembly. Senate Republican leader Brian Jones of El Cajon was the lone “‘no” vote, calling the bill “duplicative and unnecessarily divisive.”
The concept of the South Asian caste system has been in the U.S. since at least 1965, when a federal immigration law overhaul resulted in immigrants from more Asian countries receiving visas. But because those visas focused on skilled labor, the legacy of caste discrimination in India meant upper-caste Indian immigrants were able to establish themselves in the U.S. decades before lower-caste Hindus.
The issue became more prominent recently, partly because the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement in Indian politics reinforced caste divisions as it sought to unify and strengthen the Hindu identity in India.
One of the earliest examples of caste making headlines in California: In 1999, federal prosecutors charged Berkeley real estate magnate Lakireddy Bali Reddy, as well as his brother, sister-in-law and sons, for smuggling Indian women into the U.S. for illegal sexual activity. Prosecutors said Reddy “took advantage of casteism and economic class to exploit these women.” He was convicted of sex trafficking and spent eight years in federal prison before dying in Oakland in 2021.
Caste issues have surfaced prominently in Silicon Valley, where Indian workers with bachelor’s degrees made up 27% of tech workers in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in 2021. In April 2021, the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission held informational hearings about caste discrimination.
In 2020, what is now the state Civil Rights Department sued Cisco, the San Jose-based networking and cloud management company, and two engineers after an employee filed a complaint alleging he received less pay and fewer opportunities because he was Dalit. He also said the defendants retaliated against him when he spoke out.
The two engineers denied the allegations, saying in court filings they reject caste hierarchies and recruited the employee to Cisco with competitive pay and stock options. The state dropped its case against the engineers, but continues the suit against the company. The state and Cisco are in mediation talks. Attorneys for the company and the two engineers did not respond to requests for comment.
While caste discrimination is difficult for corporations to navigate, it’s also a thorny issue for politicians.
Rohit Chopra, a professor of global media and cultural identity at Santa Clara University, said some politicians don’t want to be seen as targeting any community — including the Indian community, which has political clout. That gives the opposition a window of opportunity, particularly those in the “Hindu right,” he said.
“Whatever organizations are sort of spearheading this … they keep appropriating this right to speak for all Hindus and all Indians,” he said.
Wahab is not South Asian but represents a district that is home to many. In response to the bill, she said she has been the target of threats and derogatory comments about her identity, as well as a recall campaign led by congressional candidate Ritesh Tandon, a San Jose-area former Cisco engineer. He says his platform includes protecting Silicon Valley jobs, addressing climate change and ending racial preferences in hiring.
There are two South Asians in the Legislature: Democratic Assemblymembers Ash Kalra from San Jose and Jasmeet Bains from Bakersfield. Neither has had to vote on the bill yet.
This article was produced by CalMatters.