California may become the first state in the nation to ban caste-based bias, a safeguard that people of South Asian descent say is necessary to protect them from discrimination in housing, education and the technology sector where play key roles.
State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward), the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state legislature, introduced the bill on Wednesday. She adds caste, a division of people related to birth or ancestry, as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Those in the lower strata of the caste system known as Dalits have increasingly called for such legislation, saying they have faced this type of discrimination in the United States. But such politics remain divisive.
Wahab said caste discrimination is “a social justice and civil rights issue.”
“People came to this country so that they could be free and be able to pursue their American dream without any interruption to their lives,” Wahab said, adding that she heard about this form of discrimination while growing up in Fremont, California, and living in the Bay Area. San Francisco. Area.
But some groups like the American Hindu Foundation and the Coalition of North American Hindus oppose such policies. They argue that these measures will harm a community that already faces hate and discrimination, and will specifically target Hindus and American Indians who are commonly associated with the caste system. The legislation is being backed by other groups such as Hindus for Human Rights and Hindus for Caste Equity.
A 2016 United Nations report said that at least 250 million people around the world still face caste discrimination in the Asia, Africa, Middle East and Pacific regions, as well as in various diaspora communities. Caste systems are found among Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, and Sikhs.
Wahab said he is “deeply sensitive to how religions and minority groups are portrayed.”
“Caste goes beyond religion and nationality,” he said. “This legislation mainly protects millions who live in silence and have never had that protection because there is little understanding of this issue. This bill is about protecting people who are vulnerable.”
In February, Seattle became the first US city. and the first jurisdiction outside of South Asia to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws. Several colleges and universities have also enacted similar policies prohibiting caste discrimination on campus, including the University of California, Davis.
A 2020 survey of American Indians by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that 5% of respondents reported caste discrimination. While 53% of foreign-born Hindu Americans said they affiliate with a caste group, only 34% of US-born Hindu Americans said they do the same.
However, a 2016 Equality Labs survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US showed that 67% of responding Dalits reported being treated unfairly because of their caste.
California “has been ground zero for the caste equality movement,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and CEO of Equality Labs, an Oakland, California-based Dalit advocacy group.
“This legislation tries to clarify existing protections and make them explicit,” he said.
According to a 2021 report from the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, Asians, including South Asians, hold 37.8% of technical positions and 25.3% of leadership positions at the largest tech companies. Silicon Valley bigs.
In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems saying a Dalit Indian engineer faced caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. In another case, Tanuja Gupta resigned from her senior manager role at Google News last year after backlash for inviting Soundararajan to speak to employees during April, which is Dalit History Month. The talk was canceled and Gupta accused his former employer of retaliation, which Google has denied.
Gupta said he supports the bill because those facing caste discrimination have no legal protection or recourse at the moment.
“This is the form of accountability that we need,” he said. “People are afraid to speak up when they are discriminated against because they are afraid of changing course and they are afraid of losing their job or work visa. It’s a hard cycle to break and you can only do it when someone is willing to risk it all.”
Caste “is not a religious issue, but a civil rights issue,” Gupta said.
Shakeel Syed, executive director of the South Asian Network in Artesia, California, said he sees caste discrimination among workers and has helped cases where caste played a role in wage theft and housing discrimination.
“When working people are not respected or valued simply because of their caste, that is totally wrong,” he said.