Last month, the California Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Senate Bill 403, legislation that would explicitly add discrimination based on caste to the state’s anti-discrimination laws. With hundreds of supporters and opponents rallying in Sacramento, the bill addresses a controversial and widely misunderstood issue in the U.S. that primarily affects the South Asian diaspora. Due to increasing incidences of caste-based discrimination in the state, S.B. 403 should be passed to prohibit this type of discrimination explicitly.
Caste discrimination still exists and affects many in the U.S. as Equity Labs, a co-sponsor of the bill, reported that 67% of Dalits reported unfair treatment due to their caste. Caste is an exclusionary system that ranks people at birth, with one’s caste determining every aspect of their life including jobs, marriage and worship. The system dates back thousands of years and is heavily rooted in the Hindu religion. Dalits — formerly called the “untouchables” — are at the bottom of the social order, with four other higher-level groups rounding out the stratification order. It can be indicated by a specific surname, region or district of family descent and vegetarianism.
Senator Aisha Wahab, the first elected Muslim and Afghan-American to the State Senate, introduced the bill after hearing many constituents’ concerns about caste-based discrimination in the East Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Several notable examples of caste-based discrimination in the tech industry recently made headlines. Last year, a Dalit activist speaker invited to talk about caste discrimination at Google was canceled after some employees complained that the presentation was “offensive to Hindus.” In 2020, a former Cisco Systems employee also alleged he experienced caste-based discrimination in the workplace.
Caste-based discrimination also occurs at other public establishments such as businesses, workplaces, housing, and schools. For example, Senator Wahab received reports of South Asian employees using “separate bathrooms at restaurants…versus the people owning the restaurants.” In addition, one of Berkeley’s wealthiest landlords was convicted of sex trafficking 25 Indian minors to the U.S. who were mostly Dalit individuals in 2001.
Opponents of SB 403 argue that the bill is “unconstitutional” and will specifically target Hindus and Indian Americans who are commonly associated with the caste system — providing an “additional basis for anti-Asian bias.” While concern about caste-related issues being weaponized by non-Asian Americans is valid, caste-discriminated individuals deserve civil rights protection. Moreover, since SB 403 is neutral regarding the origins and nature of caste systems, it is difficult to argue that the bill will result in reverse discrimination. Nevertheless, if targeting were to occur, existing state anti-discrimination laws based on race would legally protect Hindu communities.
Opponents are also raising questions about how the bill will enforce an “invisible” bias that is not easily detectable and has no clear data showing this type of discrimination exists. However, many forms of discrimination can also constitute “invisible” biases and prejudices. To prove workplace discrimination, Californians must demonstrate that they were treated unjustly based on a protected characteristic despite being qualified and performing satisfactorily. S.B. 403 will state “caste” as a protected characteristic and provides caste-discriminated individuals a tool to protect themselves from unfair treatment.
In illuminating this very uncomfortable issue, S.B. 403 has raised deep emotions among California’s South Asian community. Though India officially abolished its caste system in 1950, discrimination based on caste continues. Passage of S.B. 403 will not only serve to protect caste-oppressed people, but it will also give them the confidence to report caste bias. Moreover, expanding the scope of California’s anti-discrimination laws to include “caste” is a step forward in recognizing and responding to all forms of discrimination.