A bill introduced Wednesday in the California Senate could be a historic win in the fight against caste discrimination in the U.S. If it is signed into law, it would make the state the first to explicitly name caste as a protected category.
State Sen. Aisha Wahab, who represents Fremont, San Jose and other South Asian American hubs in Northern California, said she has been aware of casteism’s negative impact for much of her life. The caste system has dominated in South Asia for centuries, stratifying society into immovable social classes that affect work, marriage and daily life.
Although discrimination based on caste is now illegal in India, it’s still present in the lives of Dalits, those born at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. And as Indians have settled in other parts of the world, the caste system has followed them.
“The more diverse California becomes and the United States becomes, we need to protect more people in the way the American dream was originally supposed to,” Wahab said. “Our laws need to expand and cover more people and go deeper.”
With stories of pervasive caste discrimination coming out of places like Silicon Valley, Wahab said a bill like the new measure would ensure companies take accountability for how Dalit employees are treated. It would carve out a path to prevent issues like wage theft, social exclusion and harassment in the office, she said.
“More and more people are sharing their personal stories of discrimination,” she said. “This is a civil rights bill. This is a workers bill. This is a women’s rights bill.”
Wahab foresees pushback. As Hindu nationalism becomes more prominent in India and the diaspora, some born into privileged castes argue that passing protections for Dalits is anti-Hindu. But the bill is relevant across communities and religions, she said, and she’s ready to push it forward through any pushback.
“I’m happy to take the hits from opponents of this bill,” she said. “I know that this is the right thing.”
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit activist and the founder of the caste equity organization Equality Labs, said she’s hopeful about the bill. Last month, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to ban caste discrimination after work by Equality Labs and other civil rights partners.
It’s a movement that has accelerated over the last few years, changing official discrimination policies at educational institutions like Brown University, University of California, Davis, and the entire California State University system.
“Caste-oppressed Californians are here and we deserve workplaces and educational institutions free from discrimination and violence,” Soundararajan said in an Equality Labs news release. “We know that we might face threats and bigotry, but we will meet our opponents with love and empathy.”
Wahab acknowledged that a bill is only the first step. For Dalits to feel safe reporting discrimination, the legislation must be followed up with mass education. Government officials, police, educators and others need to learn about the intricacies of the caste system and how to identify bias, she said.
“For the larger American public, the caste system is really not well-known,” she said. “We have really been thinking about that … what does this mean? How does this look? How can we ensure that employers do trainings?”
She wants the bill to follow the lead of similar laws on issues such as racial, sex and gender discrimination, which are vocally discussed in places of work and education.
“I think most Americans do support civil rights,” she said. “This is a human rights bill. This is a bill that will allow people to pursue their American dream to the fullest potential without any restrictions based on where they come from, how they look or how they were treated somewhere else.”