“In order to bestow preferential rights on a favored few,” the South Carolinian said, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “would sacrifice the Constitutional rights of every citizen, and would concentrate in the national government arbitrary powers, unchained by laws, to suppress the liberty of all.” He further charged that it would restrict employers in hiring and firing and give government bureaucrats the power “to decide what is discrimination.”
Similar arguments were made by Governor Gavin Newsom of California on October 7, as he vetoed a bill known as SB 403 that would have banned caste discrimination in education, housing and employment throughout California.
Passed with overwhelming support in the state’s Assembly in early September after being introduced by freshman Senator Aisha Wahab in February, SB 403 was a response to the testimonies of hundreds of Silicon Valley workers of South Asian backgrounds, who say they have experienced discrimination on account of their “low caste” status.
The case of one such worker, in fact, had drawn the attention of the California Civil Rights Department, which filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the tech giant CISCO and two of its former employees, who were accused of identifying the worker as a Dalit (the preferred term for communities derogatorily referred to historically as “untouchables”). The scurrilous implication of being “outed” in this way is to suggest that a worker is a beneficiary of India’s affirmative action programs for Dalits and therefore less competent.
The two employees have since been dropped from the complaint, but the caste discrimination case against CISCO continues.
Central to the CISCO case is the company’s refusal to act on the employee’s complaint, stating that caste discrimination is not illegal in California. SB 403 was an effort to address this serious gap. By formally adding “caste” to the list of protected classes under California’s civil rights statutes (which now include race, color, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, military or veteran status and marital status), it was hoped that companies could not legally ignore caste bias.
Responding to unrelenting protests from Hindu nationalist groups, who claimed SB 403 would cause all Hindus to be regarded as discriminatory if caste discrimination was formally recognized as wrong, the bill had been edited to list caste as a subset of ancestry, though it still contained a clear definition of caste. This dilution left many caste-oppressed communities wondering why caste discrimination would be considered any more acceptable than discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which had remained on the list.
But despite the compromise in language, Newsom vetoed the bill on a weekend as the world’s attention was called to the Mideast. It is abundantly clear that he succumbed to political pressure from the same Hindu nationalists who demanded caste be stricken from the bill. The governor’s explanation for his action is remarkably close to the position of these groups, led by the Hindu American Foundation.
These opponents of the bill had been indulging in rank fear-mongering about the proposed law, spreading preposterous allegations in WhatsApp groups that SB 403 was an attack on Hinduism itself and would make Hindus, especially women, fearful of displaying their “Hinduness” in public.
Left to themselves, many Hindu Americans would support SB 403 or at worst be agnostic. But caste-oppressed communities are now in a state of shock. Saying caste discrimination is already covered under California’s civil rights laws contradicts their experience and merely rubs salt into their wounds.
Besides the insult to these Americans, Newsom has glossed over three important considerations.
First, California’s legal system isn’t as capricious and arbitrary as HAF would have us believe. The Civil Rights Department has an elaborate process to vet complaints before legal action is taken on behalf of alleged victims. The case against CISCO was the first caste discrimination allegation the CRD had taken up; they didn’t get everything right, but lessons from that case will only strengthen CRD’s ability to fairly pursue future cases — which will continue to arise, despite (or because of) the governor’s veto.
Had SB 403 existed at CISCO when its employee complained of caste discrimination, the case would have most likely been resolved within the company itself. Employers, in response to the law, would have been encouraged by SB 403 to put in place appropriate policies and training programs on caste, as some are already doing.
The HAF’s protests, and the governor’s veto, however, will have a chilling effect, discouraging other employers from addressing caste at all or implementing caste discrimination policies.
Finally, in its separate lawsuit against the CRD, HAF made the extraordinary claim that by defining caste as a Hindu ideology, “the (CRD) would actually require the very discrimination that it seeks to ban,” and “employers might arguably be required to accommodate an employee’s request not to work with someone the employee believes to be of the ‘wrong’ caste.” The court dismissed that claim as “both highly speculative and seemingly implausible.”
The court added that HAF, by trying to distance Hinduism from caste while arguing that SB 403 would selectively target Hindus, was contradicting itself. The defeat of SB 403, I’m afraid, will only tempt HAF to continue to push these untenable positions.
Caste discrimination is a sad reality that all Hindus must acknowledge and work together to annihilate, knowing that it is perfectly possible to practice Hinduism while combating caste discrimination. Gov. Newsom has missed an opportunity to support these simple facts. Instead he has lifted up the irrational fears and speculations of a highly privileged community over the needs of caste-oppressed communities, who will continue to face biases because of who they are.
But the fight is not over by any means. Those who demanded that caste be added as a distinct protected category in not only California’s but also the nation’s civil rights laws will, if anything, be strengthened in championing the vision of SB 403. We, the people who stand for justice for all, are the majority.
In the meantime, the least that the governor can do is to issue a letter formalizing his claim that caste discrimination is already covered under existing laws and require all employers to implement policies and training programs to deal with caste discrimination complaints.
The fight for SB 403 has been a remarkable journey, with a Muslim woman having the courage to introduce the bill and a diverse coalition of communities coming together to fight for it. We need such solidarity across our differences to win justice for any of our communities. The deep bonds we have all built through the fight in Seattle and now California will serve us well, indeed will be our lifeline, in the struggles ahead.
*Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights and a member of America Against Caste Discrimination. This article first appeared in Religion News Service and was distributed by the author through Dalits Media Watch google group