State Sen. Aisha Wahab introduces bill to end caste discrimination in California

Aisha Wahab. (Credit: YouTube screenshot)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California could become the first state in the U.S. to provide protections against caste discrimination if a new bill introduced by State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) is passed.

At a press conference Wednesday, Wahab introduced Senate Bill 403, which aims to ban discrimination based on caste, a social ranking system associated with South Asia that assigns individuals a particular status at birth based on their ancestry and treats them accordingly. If caste is included as a protected characteristic under existing civil rights law, the bill could prevent caste discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.

“As California becomes increasingly diverse, our policies and our laws need to stretch further and deeper in protecting more people from basic discrimination,” Wahab said.

The nonprofit Equality Labs surveyed 1,500 South Asian individuals in 2016, and found that 41% of Dalits, who are the most caste-oppressed community in South Asia, experienced caste discrimination at school, 67% experienced discrimination at work and 26% experienced physical violence because of their caste. Equality Labs Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundararajan said the Dalit community experiences some of the highest rates of discrimination among Asian American communities in California, on top of the centuries of discrimination in South Asia. She praised Wahab for advancing the bill.

“We know that we might face threats, we know that we might face bigotry,” Soundararajan said. “But we will meet our opponents with love and empathy, for this is how we turn our pain into power.”

Wahab said caste discrimination is pervasive in her district and highlighted three high-profile attempts to fight against it, including: the efforts to add caste to the California State University system’s anti-discrimination policies originated at Cal State East Bay; an ongoing suit the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing has against technology giant Cisco for caste discrimination; and former Google employee Tanuja Gupta blowing the whistle on caste discrimination at the company.

During her 11 years at Google, Gupta led a global walkout against sexual harassment and successfully fought for the company to eliminate its forced arbitration policy, so she didn’t hesitate to step in when two employees approached her confidentially about caste-discrimination at the company in September 2021. Google retaliated against her, she said.

“The company automatically lowered my performance rating for the next cycle, affected my compensation and deemed me ineligible for promotion for an unknown period of time,” Gupta said. “When I left Google, email threads that denied caste discrimination continued to spread throughout the company unchecked.”

Last month, Seattle became the first city to pass a law adding caste to the list of categories protected against discrimination.

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