Castes will be castes. So...

Applies to ALL castes, of course.

Dalits. Dalits all over the Galaxy

The Foundation Series of sci-fi novels by Isaac Asimov describes (among other things) a Galactic Empire set some tens of thousands years in the future. The capital of that Empire is the planet Trantor, that is divided in sectors. One of the poorest ones is Dahl, that is inhabited by “dark skinned, black-haired, and fairly short” people who called themselves Dahlites. It is likely that Asimov “stole” the name for this community at the very bottom (even physically) of the Trantor society from Indian Dalits.

What are castes, again?

Castes will be castes. So... /img/indian-castes.jpg

The most synthetic, very rough answer that is possible to give to this question is that castes are the layers of a stratification of indian society that originated thousands of years ago. At the top of the ladder there is the caste of “Brahman” (priests). Then there are warriors (“Kshatriyas”), merchants (“Vaishyas”) and “Sudras” that is labourers, artisans, and servants. If I understand correctly, no social mobility is possible. One dies with the same caste, or lack of it, with one one was born.

Below all those people there is, in fact, another, pretty large category that “exists completely outside of the caste system”. The collective, self-given name of these “untouchable” people is Dalits, that is “oppressed”. For many centuries, the only “job market” accessible to Dalits was the “impure”, that is the humblest and most unhealthy task. Outside work, Dalits in India are still discriminated at every possible level.

Once Dalit, always Dalit. Everywhere

The Foundation novels were written tens of years ago (between the 1940s and 1990s, if memory serves). As mentioned, the “Empire” part of the whole saga is set tens of thousands years in the future.

As far as today goes, it is interesting (but sadly unsurprising to read that as progressive and egalitarian as it is, Silicon Valley seems to ruin Dalit lives just like Trantor, or ancient India.

According to a recent lawsuit against two Indians, a Dalit engineer with twenty years of experience in software development has been routinely, publicly ridiculised by two consecutive upper-caste supervisors, demoted from his lead role on two projects, and denied bonuses and promotions.

The origins of the problems are far from Silicon Valley, both in time and (partly) in space. Following the lawsuit, a group of scholars and activists sent an open letter to 25 large tech companies, claiming that “The prevalence of caste discrimination in both elite technical education and private industry in India makes its entry into the American workplace not the least bit surprising."

Of course, unsurprising must not mean “justified”, or “tolerable”. Indeed, when hearing of the lawsuit, “at least 250 Dalit techies working in firms such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix have reported instances of harassment, humiliation, bullying, and career-halting interventions by high caste Indians”.

My own two cents (or rupees)

In a previous life, I have worked in a large high-tech company. In those years, I came across teams of Indian engineers (mostly as a supervisor, or trainer) and also worked, for a while, in a team based just in Silicon Valley, that included a few small, but tightly-knit subgroups of people from, allow me to be generic, MENA and Asia. If I remember correctly, inside each group some members already knew each other even before migrating to the US, and had gone to local colleges together.

In and by themselves, strict, long-lasting relations like those do make it easier for discrimination as in that lawsuit to happen. Personally, I never noticed anything of the sort. If anything, I remember people who were all good at their job, knew they were good, and knew they had to work super-hard to prove it every day, in a very competitive, no-unions-thank-you-very-much environment. During my stay there, that whole company was shut down from its parent multinational, because company politics.

What point(s) am I trying to make here?

I confess I am not sure. Maybe these:

  • There is always someone else there, waiting to “get you”. Everywhere. In the slums of the world, in Silicon Valley, and in every industry. Now, and always. See my first encounter with globalization in that same company
  • Above all:
  • Never confuse “digitally competent” with “rational”. Anywhere. Humans will be humans
  • If a game is broken in ways that perpetuate and intensify any pre-existing “distortion”, don’t try to eliminate the distortion. Try to change the primary rules of the game, instead

Update 2020/10/21:

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has voluntarily dropped the lawsuit, saying it will re-file the complaint in a state court.

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