California caste discrimination Bill becomes the first in U.S. The California state legislature has become the first in the U.S to pass a bill banning discrimination based on caste, a centuries-old system of social stratification with roots in South Asia.
On Tuesday, the State Senate passed SB 403 by a margin of 31-5, adding caste as a form of ancestry protected under state civil rights law, as well as education and housing codes. California caste discrimination bill now heads to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom, with activists calling on the Democrat to sign it into law.
California caste discrimination bill
“I’m proud to stand in solidarity with every person who said they, as a Californian, experienced caste discrimination, and others who say they want it to stop,” Democratic State Senator Aisha Wahab, the bill’s author, said in a news conference on Wednesday.
The passage of the anti-caste discrimination bill, supported by a wide array of civil rights and social justice organizations, has been hailed as the most significant victory yet in combating casteism in North America.
Before its passage in California’s Senate, the anti-caste discrimination bill had also cleared the State Assembly on August 29 with a 55-3 vote, a sign of broad support.
Prevalence of caste-based discrimination
Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung of the caste system, say that caste-based discrimination remains prevalent within the South Asian diaspora, taking place in workplaces, classrooms and social settings.
Caste has existed for millennia in countries like India, which formally abolished the system following the country’s independence in the late 1940s. However, Dalits say discrimination and violent enforcement of social division have remained persistent realities.
Some members of the Dalit community say they only became aware of their caste after experiencing caste-based discrimination in California from privileged-caste individuals.
“My family never talked about caste or told me about us being Dalit,” Shahira Kaur, who worked with the Dalit rights group Equality Labs to promote the bill, said in a briefing following last week’s State Assembly vote.
That started to change when she faced caste-based discrimination in California, when she overheard her friend’s mother refer to her as a “chamar”, a slur used against Dalits, in high school.
Activist on caste discrimination bill
Governor Newsom has not commented on the California caste discrimination bill, but activists are confident that the wide margins by which it passed in the State Senate and Assembly indicate it will successfully be signed into law.
“We united hundreds of organizations to come together with one purpose: to make our state more accessible for opportunity for all and to free out institutions from discrimination,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the director of Equality Labs, said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Soundararajan added that she and other members of California Coalition for Caste Equity (CCCE), an alliance of groups that promoted the California caste discrimination bill, have launched a hunger strike in support of its final passage.
Opposition for anti-caste discrimination bill
While SB 403 passed with relatively little resistance in the state legislature, anti-caste discrimination bill faced fierce opposition from a number of Hindu American groups, who are now calling on Newsom to veto it.
This divisive bill that still implicitly singles out/targets South Asians must be vetoed @GavinNewsom!” the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) said in a social media post following the bill’s passage in the State Assembly.
Such groups dispute that caste-based discrimination is a serious issue in California and argue that the legislation singles out Hindus.
Will it create discrimination against South Asians
Dalit rights groups firmly rejected those claims and have portrayed them as a form of backlash against political mobilization by caste-oppressed people.
Other supporters of the bill also deny that it will open the door to discrimination against South Asians.
“Caste is a brutal system of social stratification. It is the antithesis of equality and human dignity,” said Kiran Gill, director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF).
Places were protection of civil rights law enforced:
While the California bill marks the most significant effort yet to bring caste under the protection of civil rights law, it follows a string of victories in cities and municipalities across North America.
The U.S. city of Seattle voted to ban discrimination based on caste in February. The following month, the school board for the Canadian city of Toronto moved to recognize caste-based discrimination and work towards a framework for combating it.
“We thank Kshama Sawant who started this in the Seattle City, Aisha Wahab who initiated this in California,” Anil Wagde, an activist with the group Americans Against Caste Discrimination.
“Jai bhim! Jai bhim!” the crowd chanted, using a slogan popular among Dalits. It translates to: “Victory to Bhim!”
After the California caste discrimination bill was passed by the State Assembly last week, supporters gathered outside of the State Capitol building to celebrate with chants honoring Dalit civil rights leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who wrote India’s constitution and was a fierce critic of the oppressive nature of the caste system.