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California aims to outlaw caste bias

By, New Delhi
Mar 24, 2023 01:45 AM IST

California might become the first American state to ban caste-based discrimination after a lawmaker introduced a bill on Wednesday that added caste as a protected category to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, the latest in a string of moves that have spotlighted caste in the United States

California might become the first American state to ban caste-based discrimination after a lawmaker introduced a bill on Wednesday that added caste as a protected category to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, the latest in a string of moves that have spotlighted caste in the United States.

California might become the first American state to ban caste-based discrimination
California might become the first American state to ban caste-based discrimination

State Senator Aisha Wahab introduced the bill, SB 403, in the California House, saying caste discrimination was a social justice and civil rights issue. The development came just weeks after Seattle became the first American city to explicitly ban caste-based bias in employment, housing, public transport and retail establishments, among others.

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“People came to this country so they can be free and can pursue their American dream without any disruption to their lives,” Wahab said. “This historic legislation is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, queer rights, and civil rights. We want to ensure organisations and companies do not entrench caste discrimination in their practices or policies, and in order to do that we need to make it plainly clear that discrimination based on caste is against the law,” she added.

The development is the latest in a series of events that have spotlighted the presence of caste among the South Asian population in the US with a significant group of activists saying that birth-based biases have followed the diaspora. This has included a landmark case filed by a former employee of tech giant Cisco alleging bias and discrimination due to his caste status last year, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raiding an under-construction temple complex in New Jersey following allegations that Dalit workers were exploited and even tortured.

The battleground for several of these cases – especially the ones involving tech workers – has been California, which is America’s most-populous state with 39.2 million residents, of which nearly a million are Indian-American. “California has been ground zero for the caste equity movement…this bill is a result of 15 years of hard-won organising in the state by caste-oppressed people. The need for this bill is urgent,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, an anti-caste advocacy group.

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But the rapid surge of conversations on caste has also opened deep rifts within the Indian-American community with groups such as the Hindu American Foundation opposing such moves. After the Seattle city council passed a resolution banning caste-based bias, for example, In a statement, Suhag Shukla, the executive director of HAF, said that while caste discrimination was wrong, the “singling out of the South Asians and addition of ‘caste’ to non-discrimination” violated the very policies it sought to amend.

Still, such opposition has not come in the way of rising caste awareness in the US – especially among progressive groups and universities. In December 2019, Brandeis University became the first US institution to include caste in its non-discrimination policy, and was followed by the California State University System, Harvard University, Brown University and the University of California, Davis.

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