Amended bill lists caste under the “ancestry” category, alongside heritage, parentage, lineal descent or “any inherited social status”
A bill to bolster California’s civil rights protections by banning caste discrimination has cleared a major obstacle with the Assembly Judiciary Committee passing it by a 9-0 vote Wednesday after some language changes.
The bill already passed in the state Senate in May with a near-unanimous 34-1 vote, originally adding “caste” as a distinct protected category to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
That language received polarizing feedback at a similar Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, drawing hundreds of members of the public in one of the largest crowds of the current legislative session, according to The Sacramento Bee.
READ: California caste bias bill clears Senate panel (April 27, 2023)
Supporters cited by the Bee say Senate Bill 403 will give people experiencing caste-based discrimination the clarity they need to file investigations and benefit from the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
They point to the growing South Asian American population in the state of California, and a need for protections in various sectors like the tech industry and housing.
Cheers among supporters largely broke out at the Capitol once news of the decision broke. In a statement, the bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Aisha Wahab celebrated the decision.
“This bill is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights,” she stated. “This bill is about ensuring the American Dream is accessible to all those who pursue it.”
The bill, as passed and amended by the committee, wouldn’t go as far as to set caste as its own category, but lists it under the “ancestry” category, alongside heritage, parentage, lineal descent or “any inherited social status.”
Wahab previously amended the bill to remove some background information describing the caste system in South Asia.
The hearing also featured two speakers from parties in support of and in opposition to the bill.
Read: California considers ban on caste discrimination (March 23, 2023)
Speakers in support included litigation attorney Tarina Mand, chair of the South Asian Bar Association of North America’s racial justice taskforce; and Tanuja Gupta, a law student and former senior manager at Google who reported experiencing retaliation for attempting to shed light on the issues of caste in Google’s workplaces.
Among the many advocacy organizations leading the fight for the bill is Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization. Dozens of supporters from across the state, decked out in blue T-shirts, also made their way to the Capitol for the hearing.
Many expressed support for retaining the bill’s original language, designating “caste” as a separate, protected category in the state’s civil rights laws, but were happy with the final outcome nonetheless, according to the Bee.
“It was a political consideration,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, rather than one backed by legal experts like the Caste Equity Legal Task Force, who have argued for a clear “protected category” status.
The changes echo requests made by Assemblymembers Evan Low, D-Campbell, and Alex Lee, D-San Jose, to the committee’s chair in a June 20 letter to pause consideration of the bill for a study on caste discrimination or make language changes much like the passed amendments.
The amended bill does include the word “caste,” a term critics have continued to ask lawmakers to remove.
“It is no longer tolerable for people to deny that caste exists,” Soundararajan was quoted as saying. “I think we are going to get a remedy to discrimination.”
While some Hindu American groups are in support, two of the bill’s main critics are the Hindu American Foundation and Coalition of Hindus of North America.
Read: Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination (February 22, 2023)
They argue that the bill will place a target on some Indian and Hindu Americans, labeling them “oppressors” and singling them out in state law given the caste system’s association with the country and religion.
“It is used to target only Hindu Americans and Indians,” said Pushpita Prasad, a board member of the coalition as cited by the Bee. She worries about what peers will think when they hear the word caste, and says “they associate it with caste and Hinduism.”
The Hindu American Foundation and other critics say the word caste should be completely removed from the bill in order to be “facially neutral,” and not target one community in a discriminatory manner.