Newsom blocks a bill to ban caste discrimination in California

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SAMEEA KAMAL | CalMatters

Neither the draw of making California the first state to pass such a law, nor the month-long hunger strike by supporters persuaded Gov. Gavin Newsom to add caste to the list of categories in the state’s housing, education and employment discrimination laws. In his veto message on Oct. 7, Newsom said the bill was “unnecessary.”

“In California, we believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, or where they live,” he wrote. “That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed.”

Senate Bill 403, introduced by first-term Sen. Aisha Wahab, a Fremont Democrat, passed the Assembly by a 55-3 vote in late August, and the Senate 31-5 in September. To win support, she amended the bill several times, including listing caste as a subset of ancestry instead of a separate category. In a statement Tuesday, Wahab said: “The question of whether our laws are sufficient to account for incidents of caste discrimination is what prompted this legislation in the first place; through this process, we shined a light on a long-hidden form of discrimination that persists across multiple communities in California.”

“I believe our laws need to be more explicit especially in times when we see civil rights being eroded across the country. We cannot take anything for granted,” she said. “I’ll continue to fight to balance power and support vulnerable Californians.” Supporters started a liquid-only hunger strike near the state Capitol after the bill won final legislative approval on Sept. 5, but did not anticipate they would have to wait this long, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan. One supporter fainted on day 30 and had to go to the emergency room.

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, which supported the bill, said she was devastated that Newsom “let down…Americans who fought to #EndCasteDiscrimination in California.” “A dark day for justice in the United States,” she posted on X. “Rest assured that anti-caste Americans will dust ourselves off and continue the fight.”

Amar Shergill, former chairperson of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, noted that past civil rights bills also took many tries, and many years, before they passed. “It is a testament to the righteous energy in this movement that we came so far, so fast,” he wrote on X. “Caste discrimination is a scourge which we have brought to the top of public consciousness and that new fact will spare many people from suffering.

I am confident that this issue will receive favorable outcomes when it is tested in Court because we have successfully educated the legal world and won them to our side.” Caste is a centuries-old social hierarchy system, where one’s employment and education opportunities are determined by birth.

It’s especially prevalent in South Asian countries such as India or Nepal, where people in the lowest social and religious class were long called “untouchables.” The issue rose to prominence in Silicon Valley, where there’s a significant number of South Asians employees at tech companies. In 2020, the state sued Cisco, the San Jose-based networking and cloud management company, after an employee who was Dalit — an “untouchable” in the caste system — alleged he received less pay and fewer opportunities and faced retaliation when he spoke out.

The lawsuit is ongoing. The bill was supported by dozens of civil rights, legal and South Asian groups, including the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund, which sent a letter to Newsom in early September, noting that caste discrimination can take the form of bullying, harassment, wage theft and housing discrimination. But opponents of the bill said it unfairly targets Hindus because caste is a part of their religion. “The fight over SB 403 has always been about the best solution for any intra-community discrimination, not whether such protections are needed,” Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, one of the groups leading the opposition, said in a statement.

“We hope to move forward together, educating our community to live the values of our shared traditions that insist on equality based on teachings of oneness of all of existence.” Some of those concerns were prompted by fears that the state would determine or collect information on individuals’ caste though the bill did not do that. But some of the more organized opposition was influenced by the Hindu nationalist movement in India. And while in theory that means uniting all Hindus, some describe it as “a revolt of the upper castes.”

In the U.S., that movement has led to a campaign against “Hinduphobia,” which opponents said the bill would promote. Guha Krishnamurthi, an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland, noted in a paper that the bill’s language is careful not to disparage a religion, which makes it difficult to argue the law is unconstitutional. Still, those talking points were picked up by Republican lawmakers in a letter to Newsom earlier this week, calling for the bill to be vetoed. Sens. Brian Jones and Shannon Grove wrote that the bill would “put other California residents and businesses at risk and jeopardize our state’s innovative edge.”

“By adding the term ‘caste’ to the definition of ‘ancestry,’ this bill puts our state on track to add the first and only explicitly racially discriminatory term to California law, resulting in the denial of constitutional rights of equal protection and due process for South Asians, and Hindus in particular,” the letter said. After the veto, Jones said the bill was duplicative of current law. “Despite being unnecessarily divisive, SB 403 only received 8 ‘no’ votes in the Legislature,” he said in a statement to CalMatters. “Newsom did the right thing in listening to Californians and vetoing this unnecessary bill.”

An ordinance banning caste discrimination passed by the Fresno City Council last week showed that caste isn’t just an issue among Hindu Californians. The proposal was initiated by Sikh residents, but gained allies from community members of Oaxacan descent, who might experience the system of “casta,” in which those with darker skin or Indigenous heritage are looked down upon. Fresno follows Seattle, which in February became the first U.S. city to pass an ordinance banning caste discrimination. Tim Perry, an attorney, former adviser to Newsom and a former chief of staff at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said that while the governor’s veto statement makes it clear he believes casteism has no place in a “pluralist democracy like the United States,” it’s also fair to question whether legislation is the right tool.

“Would making caste a protected class truly reach any scenarios not already covered by California’s robust laws against discrimination? Here, the Governor answered ‘No,” Perry said in an email. “Overall you can see the veto as vindicating California’s commitment to civil rights in the sense that it acknowledges how expansive those rights already are.”

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