‘Once we win California, the nation is next’: what a caste discrimination ban means for Americans

<span>Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA</span>
Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

California could soon become the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of caste, propelling a growing civil rights movement to its biggest stage yet.

In recent years, efforts to ban caste discrimination have become increasingly widespread. Pending approval from Governor Gavin Newsom, the ban in California would follow the likes of Seattle and dozens of college campuses nationwide – including the 23-school California state university system – to explicitly define “caste” and add it to a list of protected identities.

Related: California poised to become first US state to ban caste discrimination

Earlier this month, state legislators voted 31-5 to approve SB403, which amends California’s housing, labor and education codes to cover discrimination based on one’s ancestry. According to the bill, that specifically includes “caste”, a system of social stratification based on one’s inherited status with roots in south Asia, which spans India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Anti-caste discrimination activists say the law in California would empower caste-oppressed people while educating both south Asians and non-south Asians on an issue they say remains prevalent on the Asian continent and in the diaspora abroad.

“It has become psychological trauma that carries over, one generation to the other generation,” said Nirmal Singh, a physician from Bakersfield, California, who was born into a historically oppressed caste in south Asia. “This was a very important bill for us.”

The California bill defines caste as “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status”, which can be characterized by a number of factors including the “inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status”, according to the text.

Introduced by the Democratic state senator Aisha Wahab, the first Afghan American elected to public office in the US, the bill would update the state’s housing and employment laws, as well as the state’s education codes, banning anti-caste bias at all public schools in California.

The impact of such a policy change on campus was immediate for Prem Pariyar, who is from Nepal and identifies as Dalit, the lowest caste in the Hindu social stratum and whose members were marginalized and referred to as “untouchables”.

You cannot imagine the mental health, the trauma associated with this caste

Prem Pariyar

“You cannot imagine the mental health, the trauma associated with this caste,” said Pariyar, who advocated for anti-caste discrimination as a graduate student studying social work at California State University East Bay.

Growing up Dalit in Nepal, Pariyar said he was bullied by upper-caste classmates at school and treated differently by his teachers. He said they punished him more harshly than they did the other students, claiming one of his teachers once spit out water after a classmate said he’d touched the glass.

One in three Dalit students said they experienced discrimination, according to a 2018 survey of just over 1,500 people who identified as south Asian by Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs.

Pariyar moved to the US about a decade ago, expecting to be free of caste discrimination but encountering it first-hand after one of his professors invited him to speak about his experience of Nepal during class.

He said other Indian students’ attitudes toward him shifted after he revealed he was Dalit, and that they distanced themselves and excluded him from social events.

When the university announced the system-wide policy in January 2022, Pariyar called it his “new year’s gift”.

A handful of schools outside of California have also instituted policies identifying caste as a protected identity, which has elevated students’ awareness of the issue, according to faculty members involved with university policy changes.

In 2019, Brandeis University became the first US college to identify and define caste as a targeted identity after administrators amended the school’s non-discrimination policy.

Supporters of the bill staged a hunger strike outside the state capitol of Sacramento, California on 6 September 2023.
Supporters of the bill staged a hunger strike outside the state capitol of Sacramento, California on 6 September 2023. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

“I often say caste is a hidden discrimination in America,” said Laurence Simon, a professor of international development who was part of administration-led conversations surrounding the policy change and whose research centers on social exclusion. “Most people not of south Asian heritage really don’t know anything about caste and wouldn’t see it in front of them because they’re not targets.”

Simon told the Guardian he believes it has “become visible on campus”, adding that all new students and faculty now learn about caste as its anti-discrimination policies are a part of orientation. “Visible in terms of why we have a policy of non-discrimination”.

At Brown University, which added a non-discrimination provision for caste in 2022, the push was student-led, according to Vincent Harris, an associate dean and director of the Brown center for students of color.

“Initially, I had to sharpen my own knowledge about the caste system,” said Harris, who received an email from a student asking about how they might cement caste as a protected class. “[Administrators] were able to play a pivotal role towards what the university did, but it was a student’s perspective that really galvanized this movement.”

Beyond college campuses, Seattle is so far the only government body in the US that has explicitly outlawed discrimination on the basis of one’s caste.

“There is a big, tangible shift where there is now a bold acknowledgment that caste discrimination not only exists but is actually quite pervasive,” said Kshama Sawant, the Seattle city councilmember who introduced the ordinance adding caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

Sawant said that while discrimination “obviously” does not end overnight, the effort to pass the city ordinance, which garnered significant support among Dalit civil rights and south Asian advocacy groups, has already empowered caste-oppressed people.

“It’s actually the experience of fighting to win itself that starts bringing about that shift,” said Sawant.

It’s actually the experience of fighting to win itself that starts bringing about that shift

Kshama Sawant

Still, banning caste discrimination remains somewhat controversial. Opposition to anti-caste discrimination policies, including the pending bill in California, has been loud among Hindu Americans who say the bill is “racist” and unlawfully targets south Asians.

Suhag Shukla, the executive director of advocacy group Hindu American Foundation, said that the bill would give California businesses a “license to discriminate against South Asians”. The group has lobbied against the bill, saying its passage would trigger a rise in Hinduphobia.

“The bill, if signed into law, will deprive South Asians of their constitutional rights of equal protection and due process in the workplace, schools and in the housing sector. We’re hopeful that Governor Newsom will stand up for the rights of the South Asians minority and veto this bill,” said the Hindu American Foundation’s managing director, Samir Kalra, in a statement to the Guardian.

Proponents of the bill also point out that it bans all bias based on ancestry, protecting other marginalized groups outside of south Asia.

“Certainly one of the largest and casted communities is the south Asian community, which is why you’ve had so many south Asian people advocating for this bill,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder of Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs and who grew up in eastern Los Angeles. “But there are caste-oppressed communities in many countries with their own practices of discrimination based on work and descent.”

She listed, for example, the Roma people in Europe, Burakumin people in Japan, Midgan in Somalia and Indigenous peoples of Latin America.

“You see many people who suffer from this type of discrimination asking for remedy,” said Soundararajan.

Newsom has not yet confirmed that he will sign the bill into law. The Hindu American Foundation as of press time does not yet have an indication of the governor’s decision, according to Mat McDermott, the group’s senior communications director.

But Soundararajan and other advocates say they are confident they’ll have his signature.

“Once we win California, the nation is next,” said Soundararajan.