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West Coast Casts Wide Net for Caste Discrimination: Part II

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

This is Part II of a blog on the new caste anti-discrimination legislation being considered by states and municipalities. Part I shed light on the persistence of caste-based discrimination among South Asian immigrants in the United States, highlighting its often overlooked nature and the unique challenges it poses. While the U.S. has made progress in addressing various forms of discrimination, caste discrimination remains relatively hidden from mainstream awareness. It also emphasized the need for greater recognition and policies to address this issue, particularly for South Asian Americans from lower-caste backgrounds who continue to face discrimination in education and the workplace. Part II summarizes the recent efforts, particularly on the West Coast, to address caste discrimination through progressive policies.

Rising Recognition of Caste Conflict Creates Rallying Cry

California, the state with the largest South Asian population, has been a hotbed of caste discrimination that has only come to light in recent years. With regard to housing, there have been instances of immigrant Dalits that have been denied rental properties based on their caste background. In the medical field, where South Asians are disproportionately represented, Indian Americans have ceased referring patients to specialists once they found out the doctors were Dalits. Dalit students in universities sometimes face exclusion in student activities and derogatory remarks from caste-privileged students.

The recent reports have sparked some attempts to hold perpetrators legally accountable. Since there has long been a concentration of South Asians in the tech sector, it won't surprise you that caste discrimination has been particularly pronounced in Silicon Valley. In 2020, a lawsuit by the state of California against Cisco Systems alleged that a Dalit engineer who worked on a team of Indian immigrants of high caste was harassed and discriminated against and then faced retaliation when he spoke out. Though the lawsuit remains ongoing, most cases like this one don't have strong legal legs to stand on without explicit legislation making the practices illegal.

College Campuses Correct for Caste

The initiatives finally started first within higher ed. Colleges and universities, both public and private, set their own discrimination policies and often have to comply with federal guidelines. Among students and staff within these institutions, discrimination based on a person's "protected characteristics," including raceimmigration status, and national origin, is prohibited. Historically, though, caste has not been explicitly included in these characteristics.

In 2019, Brandeis University in Massachusetts became the first American higher education institution to rewrite its discrimination policy to include caste as a protected characteristic. In 2021, Colby College of Maine and UC Davis in California did the same. Brown became the first Ivy League to do so, followed by Harvard. The first university system to ban caste discrimination was the California State University system, changing its policies in 23 campuses across the state to be inclusive of caste.

This pattern of equity-enhancing measures was all well and good for the students that attended these schools, but that is still a minority of the county's population. What about South Asian Americans facing discrimination outside of academia? For the rest of us, it was necessary that action be taken by the government to address their policies applying more broadly to all.

Pacific Pioneers Pass Progressive Policies

In lieu of any progress on the issue at the federal level, the local governments of California and its tech rival to the North, Seattle, have taken measures into their own hands. All states and many cities have their own versions of laws that prohibit discrimination in employmenthousing, and public accommodations based on a person's "protected characteristics," including raceimmigration status, and national origin. Historically, though, caste has not been explicitly included in these characteristics.

In February of this year, the City of Seattle became the first U.S. jurisdiction to change that when it passed an ordinance that amended its existing discrimination laws to include caste. Not about to be outdone, the California legislature soon proposed changes to its own state civil rights lawsSenate Bill 403 recently passed the Cali congress by a landslide vote of 31-5. But the buck stopped at the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom, which seems a decision shaped largely by the negative reaction across the board from the South Asian American community.

Caste-Inclusive Policies Spark Controversy

The California State University system's inclusion of caste in their discrimination policies was met with strong disapproval from certain faculty and staff, who united in opposition by identifying themselves as "List of 80+ CSU Faculty suppressed." They collectively penned a letter to the board of trustees to voice their dissent, saying that rather than redressing discrimination, the new policy "will actually cause discrimination by unconstitutionally singling out and targeting Hindu faculty of Indian and South Asian descent as members of a suspect class because of deeply entrenched, false stereotypes about Indians, Hindus, and caste." They complained that even though South Asians have been positively contributing to the school system for decades, they are now "the unfair target of a discriminatory policy that is being justified on the basis of racist stereotypes and that too in the absence of any evidence and without fair hearing." They called for the removal of caste from the new policy.

Similarly, when the bill passed the state legislature, most of the South Asian community in the country was not happy. Hundred of Californians attended the public hearings on the new law, which lasted hours. Republican lawmakers who had opposed the bill made similar arguments to the South Asian community, pointing out that state law already banned discrimination and that the new law would only lead to racial profiling of South Asians. They also said that the law would put California businesses at risk by opening them up to unnecessary or frivolous lawsuits, and jeopardize the state's "innovate edge."

Faced with this backlash, Governor Newsome vetoed the bill a couple of weeks ago, saying that "[b]ecause discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary." While some of the bill's proponents still see it as a victory that such laws have made it this far at all, it seems that, for now, most states will still be relying on other protected characteristics to keep casteism in check. It's anyone's guess if it'll be enough, but hopefully, coverage of the issue will serve as a wake-up call for businesses and other institutions to keep this more subtle form of discrimination in check.

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