Los Angeles- California Governor Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill on October 7, which, if passed, would have established California as the first U.S. state to prohibit caste-based discrimination.
Caste, a system of social stratification based on birth or descent, has been a subject of concern for those at the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy, known as Dalits. They have advocated for legal safeguards to protect them from biases in various aspects of life, including housing, education, and the technology sector, where they hold significant roles.
Earlier this year, Seattle made history by becoming the first U.S. city to include caste in its anti-discrimination laws. On September 28, Fresno followed suit, becoming the second U.S. city and the first in California to outlaw caste-based discrimination by amending its municipal code to include caste and indigeneity.
Governor Newsom, in his message, deemed the bill “unnecessary,” explaining that California “already prohibits discrimination 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.”
“Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary,” he stated.
According to a United Nations report from 2016, at least 250 million people worldwide continue to experience caste discrimination in regions such as Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, and within various diaspora communities. Caste systems exist among various religious groups, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, and Sikhs.
Supporters of the bill had embarked on a hunger strike in early September to press for its enactment. During their campaign, numerous Californians came forward with stories of experiencing discrimination in workplaces, housing, and education. However, opponents, including some Hindu organizations, argued that the proposed legislation was “unconstitutional” and unfairly targeted Hindus and individuals of Indian descent. This issue created divisions within the Indian American community, with hundreds on both sides testifying at committee hearings in the state senate and assembly.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, an Oakland-based Dalit rights group leading the nationwide movement to combat caste discrimination, still considers this moment a victory for caste-oppressed individuals who have “organized and built amazing power and awareness on this issue.”
“We made history conducting the first advocacy days, caravans, and hunger strike for caste equity,” she remarked. “We made the world aware that caste exists in the U.S., and our people need a remedy from this violence. A testament to our organizing is in Mr. Newsom’s veto where he acknowledges that caste is currently covered. So while we wipe our tears and grieve, know that we are not defeated.”
The Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America hailed Newsom’s veto as a triumph for their advocacy efforts.
“With the stroke of his pen, Governor Newsom has averted a civil rights and constitutional disaster that would have put a target on hundreds of thousands of Californians simply because of their ethnicity or their religious identity, as well as create a slippery slope of facially discriminatory laws,” stated Samir Kalra, the Hindu American Foundation’s managing director.
In March, State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan American elected to the California Legislature, introduced the bill. The California law would have included caste as a sub-category under ethnicity, a protected category under the State’s anti-discrimination laws.
Nirmal Singh, a member of Californians for Caste Equity and a resident of Bakersfield, noted that the bill’s introduction “represents a shifting tide in California to understand caste-based discrimination.” Singh also represents the Ravidassia community, many of whom are Dalits with roots in Punjab, India.
“The fact that caste-oppressed people were given a platform to stand up for our basic human rights is a huge win in and of itself,” Singh emphasized.
Republican state Senators Brian Jones and Shannon Grove had urged Governor Newsom to veto the bill earlier this week, asserting that it would “not only target and racially profile South Asian Californians but will put other California residents and businesses at risk and jeopardize our state’s innovative edge.”
Mr. Jones stated that he received numerous calls from Californians opposed to the bill, emphasizing, “We don’t have a caste system in America or California, so why would we reference it in law, especially if caste and ancestry are already illegal.”
Grove expressed concerns that the law could expose businesses to unwarranted or frivolous lawsuits.
According to a 2016 survey by Equality Labs involving 1,500 South Asians in the U.S., 67% of responding Dalits reported unfair treatment due to their caste. A 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that 5% of respondents reported experiencing caste discrimination. While 53% of foreign-born Hindu Indian Americans indicated an affiliation with a specific caste group, only 34% of U.S.-born Hindu Indian Americans did the same.