One category of discrimination that has yet to be federally protected in the U.S. has gained attention in recent years: caste discrimination. With the ever-increasing population of South Asians in the U.S., reports of discriminatory acts based on caste have risen considerably.
Just this year, Seattle, WA and Fresno, CA—both cities with significant South Asian populations—became the first cities in American history to ban caste discrimination. While these are great strides in the right direction, the road ahead for larger jurisdictions will be long.
Caste Discrimination Bill Vetoed in California
Just one month ago, Governor Newsom vetoed a bill, SB 403, that would have explicitly banned caste discrimination in California. California is home to nearly a million Indian Americans and hundreds of thousands of other South Asians as well. Notably, Governor Newsom commented that the specific addition was “unnecessary,” as California had already explicitly banned discrimination based on “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation.” South Asian civil rights activists and lawmakers vehemently disagree.
CA State Senator Aisha Wahab was responsible for putting forth SB 403. The purpose of the bill was to include “caste” within the definition of “ancestry” and further define “caste” itself. The bill would have provided much-needed clarity on what caste is and how it manifests into a basis for discrimination here in the U.S. Governor Newsom rejected an opportunity to elucidate and further protect an otherwise potentially nebulous class of people.
Caste, as defined by SB 403, is:
An individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status. ‘A system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status’ may be characterized by factors that may include, but are not limited to, inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status.
The caste system is one that dates back thousands of years in South Asia, chiefly in India. Although caste is typically associated with Hinduism, the culture of casteism has pervaded many other religions and cultures in South Asia. In a community or family that strictly, piously adheres to caste, the system can impact anything from whom one can marry, what jobs one can perform, what one can eat, and where one can look or walk, to which plates and cups one can use. India banned caste discrimination in 1948, but the system itself remains very much still in practice today.
The Road Ahead in the U.S.
While the introduction of caste discrimination bills is a step forward, it’s important to consider the complexities involved in addressing this issue. Many argue, for example, that determining caste identity can be difficult and that some individuals may misuse these protections. Perhaps it is true that others may not always know to which caste a person belongs. However, irrespective of whether an employee’s colleagues are all aware of the relevant castes at issue, so long as the parties involved are aware, at least the possibility for discrimination exists.
There are approximately 5.4 million South Asians in the U.S. now. To the extent that someone has used caste as a basis for discrimination, an avenue for recourse should be available. This is a lived reality for many Americans, and it is essential to address just like any other form of discrimination.
Caste discrimination bills propose to extend legal protections to individuals who face discrimination, including in education, employment, housing, and public services. The emergence of caste discrimination bills in the United States marks a legal path forward for those who have been and are being victimized in the workplace.
By addressing this long-standing form of discrimination, American lawmakers join global efforts to combat caste discrimination. Here in Texas, home to hundreds of thousands of South Asian employees, it is only a matter of time before similar bills are drafted here. While the path ahead may be long, these recent bills are a significant step toward ensuring a more just society for all.