California could become the first state to ban discrimination based on someone’s caste after legislators on Tuesday approved the bill. This move gives added protections to people from countries like Nepal, India and Bangladesh, who were not included in pre-existing anti-discrimination law. Now that it has passed, the first-in-the-nation bill will need to be signed by Gavin Newsom, the state governor, before becoming law.
In recent years, California has become a hotbed of anti-caste actions. In 2020, state regulators sued the technology company Cisco, alleging that two high-caste Indian managers had discriminated against a Dalit engineer by subjecting him to lower pay and inferior terms of employment. In 2022, California State University became the first university system to add caste as a protected category to its anti-discrimination policy.
The state was also home to one of the most disturbing crimes committed against people based on their caste. In 2001 Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a wealthy Bay Area landlord, was convicted of sex trafficking after he sexually abused more than two dozen women in India over the course of 15 years. He spent eight years in state prison.
Caste describes a centuries-old exclusionary system that divides Hindu people into four inherited social categories. In a caste system, people fixed at the bottom of the social strata are considered to be lesser human beings and face everything from substandard housing to being forced into sex work and enslaved, according to the International Dalit solidarity network (IDSN), an advocacy group for Dalits, a South Asian minority group that has faced generations of stigma and violence.
The caste system’s origins in the country can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s occupation and birth. Though caste-based discrimination has been prohibited in India for 75 years, Dalits continue to face violence, poor treatment and socioeconomic stagnation.
The bill, which was approved by the state senate 31-5, was sponsored by Aisha Wahab, a California state senator and the first Afghan American woman elected to public office in the US. “This bill is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights,” Wahab said in statement on Tuesday. “This bill is about ensuring the American Dream is accessible to all those who pursue it.”
Many major US colleges and universities have added caste to their non-discrimination policies. In February, Seattle became the first US city to ban discrimination based on caste.