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California bill barring caste discrimination overwhelmingly passes state Senate

The bill, SB 403, passed on a 34-1 vote and now heads to the Democratic-controlled state Assembly.

State Sen. Aisha Wahab listens to speakers during a news conference where she proposed SB 403, a bill that would add caste as a protected category in the state's anti-discrimination laws, on March 22, 2023, in Sacramento, California.  (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas, File)

(RNS) — The California state Senate on Thursday (May 11) overwhelmingly passed a historic bill that would outlaw caste-based discrimination in the state.

The bill, introduced by newly elected state Sen. Aisha Wahab, has garnered global attention, adding caste — an ancient system of social hierarchy determined by birth — as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Caste discrimination is “a social justice and civil rights issue,” she has said.

It passed on a 34-1 vote and now heads to the Democratic-controlled state Assembly. The bill, SB 403, must make its way through committees and a floor vote before reaching Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. If the measure is signed, California would become the first state in the nation to make caste-based discrimination illegal.

With this vote, Wahab said, “California reaffirms its commitment to stand against discrimination.”

The measure, she said in a statement on Thursday, “is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights” and “about ensuring the American Dream is accessible to all those who pursue it.”

People of South Asian descent, particularly Dalits who are at the lowest strata of the caste system, say the bill is crucial to protect them from discrimination in housing, education and tech sectors. Among the organizations supporting the measure are Hindus for Caste Equity and the Sikh Coalition, which noted that Sikhs know “firsthand the pain and trauma that comes with being repeatedly targeted by hate and discrimination.”

It has also spurred pushback, from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, who say the bill targets Hindus and Indian Americans who are commonly associated with the caste system. The organizations have submitted letters of opposition, saying Wahab’s measure “seeks to codify” negative stereotypes and stigmas that Hindus and Indian Americans face. Critics also say current anti-discrimination laws in place offer protections that will cover caste discrimination.

Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the state Legislature, said she’s been the target of Islamophobic threats and has received social media messages calling for her death after introducing the bill. She said members of her staff have been bullied and followed to their vehicles.

Wahab’s proposal comes on the heels of Seattle adding caste to its existing anti-discrimination policies, becoming the first city in the U.S. to do so. In January 2022, the California State University system — the largest public university system in the U.S. — passed a resolution adding caste as a category of discrimination. 

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