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1st statewide caste discrimination bill watered down, but passes

California caste discrimination bill stays alive

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An effort to ban caste discrimination in California survived in committee Wednesday, despite months of opposition organized by groups that alleged the bill would unfairly target South Asians.

Senate Bill 403, authored by Fremont Democratic Sen. Aisha Wahab, would add caste — a centuries-old social hierarchy system that has historically determined what jobs or education people can attain — to the list of protected classes in the state’s civil rights, employment and housing laws, alongside race, gender and sexual orientation. 

What would be the first law of its kind in the nation has been watered down somewhat, but was approved in a 9-0 vote by the Assembly Judiciary committee and now goes to the full Assembly. The Senate approved a similar version by a 34-1 vote in May.

The bill that passed through the committee Wednesday includes amendments added over the weekend that categorize caste as a subset of ancestry — an already protected trait under state anti-discrimination laws. Wahab accepted that amendment, saying it represented a concept of the bill her office “discussed at length weeks ago.”

But the senator rejected earlier suggestions from Assembly Judiciary Chairperson Brian Maienschein, a San Diego Democrat, to remove the word “caste” from the bill and replace it with “inherited social status.” 

“SB 403 will end caste discrimination. The definition and protections included in this bill will protect millions,” Wahab said in a statement after the committee’s hearing, which drew around 200 people representing both sides. 

Supporters say current laws don’t go far enough to protect against caste-based discrimination because it’s difficult to make such claims against an employer or potential landlord who may share the same race or national origin. 

After the vote, supporters marched out of the hearing room chanting “SB 403 zindabad,” which translates to “Long live SB 403.”

Opponents — including groups who organized against a similar ordinance in Seattle — said the prevalence of caste in South Asian countries would lead to racial profiling. They oppose any mention of “caste” in the bill. 

Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, which organized some of the opposition, said he was disappointed, but that the group plans to continue to try to “educate lawmakers on the issue” before the bill is voted on by the full Assembly.

“We feel it was a step in the right direction but not far enough,” he told CalMatters after the hearing. “We’re disappointed that the committee didn’t remove ‘caste’ entirely from even the clarification of ancestry.” 

In a concession to critics, Wahab amended the bill on June 15 to strip out language that references any South Asian origins of caste, but said that did not change the intent of the legislation. 

Supporters testified in favor of SB 403 at the Assembly Judiciary Hearing at the state Capitol in Sacramento on July 5, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters
Supporters testify on a caste discrimination bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol in Sacramento on July 5, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

The bill is the latest example of international conflict coming to California, a magnet for immigrants. Due to immigration laws that favored skilled workers, immigrants from India’s lower caste are more recent arrivals — and some left to escape discrimination, only to confront it in the workplace and social settings here.

While caste systems exist in several countries, it’s commonly associated with India, where it was outlawed in 1950 but its legacy remains.

But trying to legislate such conflicts is difficult and controversial. 

There are two South Asians in the Legislature. Democratic Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains from Bakersfield signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. 

Democratic Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose, who is on the committee, hadn’t spoken on the bill — until today. In sometimes emotional testimony, he spoke about the divisions he had witnessed and said he understood concerns from constituents, but concluded that the amendments address those.

“Ultimately, there are certain things we must do as a state to protect everyone in our state,” he said. 

Wahab, the first Afghan American in the Legislature, isn’t South Asian, but represents many in her district. Since introducing the bill, she says she has been threatened, and she’s now the target of a recall campaign. 

Assemblymembers Alex Lee and Evan Low represent parts of Silicon Valley, where many tech workers are South Asian and where allegations of caste bias have hit top companies, including Cisco and Google. In a June letter, they suggested pausing the bill for further study. While Low leads the California Asian American and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, the group declined to take a position on the matter.

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