Oct 23, 2023 - News

What's next for the movement to ban caste discrimination

Supporters of the caste discrimination bill march in September. Photo: Courtesy of Equality Labs

Following the veto of a caste discrimination bill in California that sparked nationwide debate, Asian American civil rights advocates say they plan to build on the momentum to educate more of the country on a form of bias they say is overlooked.

Why it matters: Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed SB 403 — which would have enshrined caste as a protected category under California's civil rights law — this month, saying existing state protections already bar caste-based discrimination.

  • Proponents, who held a monthlong hunger strike to demand Newsom's signature, had hoped California would set an example as the first state to enact an explicit ban.

What to watch: State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), who faced threats and a recall campaign for sponsoring the bill, has indicated that she will continue working to make caste discrimination explicitly illegal and expects similar legislation in other states.

  • Though the bill was defeated, it prompted more cities and elected officials to grapple with the realities of caste discrimination. Some Bay Area jurisdictions have held public forums on the topic following Seattle's move in February to prohibit caste discrimination and Fresno's just last month.

Context: Wahab introduced the bill in February in response to conversations with constituents on the campaign trail.

  • Her measure, which she told Axios was the "righteous thing to do," built on yearslong advocacy that followed the California State University system's decision to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy last year.

State of play: Caste is a system that assigns hierarchy and status at birth, with Brahmin Hindus afforded the most privileges, while Dalits face marginalization. The system dictates people's professional pathways and who they can marry, among other things. It remains prevalent in many parts of the world, including California.

  • Though it exists in other cultures, it was solidified as a function of Indian society under British colonial rule.
  • Among Asian immigrant communities, it's "like the worst-kept secret," said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland-based Dalit advocacy group Equality Labs.
  • Soundararajan, who is Dalit, told Axios she had early experiences with social boycotting and "untouchability" in the U.S., such as when a classmate's parents did not want her to eat with their plates and silverware because of her caste.

What's next: Soundararajan said Newsom's acknowledgment as well as broader recognition of caste dynamics will allow organizations like hers to reach a wider audience via educational workshops and company trainings.

  • Of note: Silicon Valley companies like Google and Cisco have faced allegations of caste bias within their workplace environment, including harassment accusations. Lawsuits against specific individuals have largely been unsuccessful.

Yes, but: Without explicit inclusion in state law, civil rights enforcement against caste discrimination may vary depending on how state agencies and judges interpret existing statutes, according to legal organization the Asian Law Caucus.

The other side: Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, told Axios the bill would have enabled racial profiling and unfairly singled out Hindus — as well as anyone racialized as South Asian — because the caste system is commonly associated with the religion.

  • The foundation — which has voiced support for some of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's policies and had a board member serve as a spokesperson for a 2019 Modi event in Houston — has said it plans to keep a close eye on similar legislation.

The big picture: Though there is limited data on the topic, around 5% of Indian Americans — now the largest sub-group of Asian Americans — reported experiencing caste discrimination in a 2020 survey published by Carnegie Endowment.

Between the lines: Soundararajan said that the issue, one unfamiliar to many Americans, shows how "our internal hegemonies from our homelands are now seeping into institutions and contexts here."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the Hindu American Foundation's relationship to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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