California Becomes First US State to Ban Caste Discrimination

California’s legislature has approved a historic bill that would explicitly ban caste discrimination in the state, sending it to the governor’s desk for signature. The bill, which passed on Tuesday by 31-5, was sponsored by Democratic state senator Aisha Wahab, who said it would protect people of South Asian descent who allege unfair treatment based on their caste.

What is Caste and Why Does It Matter?

Caste is a system of social stratification that originated in India and divides Hindu society into rigid hierarchical groups based on notions of purity and pollution. A person’s caste is assigned at birth and determines their occupation, education, marriage prospects, and social status. Caste is commonly associated with Hinduism, but it has also spread to other South Asian countries and religions. Similar systems are also found in some other parts of the world.

Caste discrimination is the practice of treating people differently or unfairly because of their caste. It can take various forms, such as denying access to education, employment, health care, housing, public services, or religious institutions; imposing social boycotts or violence; or enforcing endogamy or untouchability. Caste discrimination is a violation of human rights and dignity and has been condemned by various international bodies.

How Prevalent is Caste Discrimination in the US?

Caste discrimination is not a new phenomenon in the US. It has been documented among South Asian immigrants and their descendants for decades. However, it has become more visible and vocal in recent years, especially in Silicon Valley, where a large proportion of workers are South Asian immigrants.

According to a 2018 survey by Equality Labs, an advocacy group for caste-oppressed communities, 67% of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) in the US reported facing workplace discrimination because of their caste; 41% reported facing educational discrimination; and 40% reported facing physical assault or threats of violence. The survey also found that 52% of Brahmins (the highest caste) and 35% of other dominant castes admitted to practicing caste endogamy or marrying within their own caste.

In 2020, the technology company Cisco was sued by the state of California after two high-caste Indian managers allegedly discriminated against a Dalit engineer, paying him a lower salary, denying him promotions and opportunities, and creating a hostile work environment. The case, which is still pending, drew national and international attention and sparked a debate on the need for legal protection against caste discrimination.

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What Does the California Bill Do?

The bill, known as SB 327, would amend the state’s civil rights statutes to specify that caste is a subset of ancestry, which is already a protected category under the law. This would give residents legal recourse against instances of caste discrimination in employment, education, housing, and public accommodations.

The bill defines caste as “a hereditary classification that is historically associated with South Asia and traditionally determined by occupation or ritual purity”. It also states that “caste may be determined by factors such as endogamy or exogamy; surname; lineage; place of birth; place of residence; dialect; physical appearance; ritual purity; occupation; socioeconomic status; education; or any other factor”.

The bill does not single out any specific group or religion as perpetrators or victims of caste discrimination. It applies to all people who are affected by caste-based prejudice and inequality.

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What Are the Arguments for and Against the Bill?

Supporters of the bill argue that it is a necessary and overdue step to address a hidden and pervasive form of discrimination that affects thousands of Californians. They say that caste discrimination violates the principles of equality and justice that the state upholds and harms the well-being and dignity of its residents. They also point out that the bill is consistent with international human rights standards and existing anti-discrimination laws in other countries.

Opponents of the bill contend that it is unnecessary and divisive. They claim that caste discrimination is not a serious or widespread issue in the US and that existing laws are sufficient to deal with any cases that may arise. They also argue that the bill unfairly targets and stigmatizes South Asians and Hindus as inherently oppressive and discriminatory. They fear that the bill could lead to profiling, harassment, and litigation based on vague and subjective criteria.

What Are the Next Steps?

The bill has been sent to Governor Gavin Newsom for his approval or veto. Newsom has not yet indicated whether he intends to sign the bill into law. He has until October 10 to make his decision. If Newsom signs the bill, California would become the first US state to formally ban caste discrimination.

The bill would take effect on January 1, 2024. If Newsom vetoes the bill, it would be a setback for the anti-caste movement in the US. However, supporters of the bill have vowed to continue their fight for justice and equality.

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