Sacramento, CA—Equality Labs and the newly formed coalition Californians for Caste Equity applauds State Senator Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) in introducing the historic new California bill SB 403, Discrimination on the Basis of Caste, which aims to clarify existing state law and specify that discrimination based on caste is illegal.
Caste is a system of social stratification where each position is characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social exclusion. It impacts over 1.9 billion people in South Asia and 5.7 million South Asian Americans. While caste discrimination is rampant in South Asia it also exists here in the United States where Equality Labs’ data has found 1 in 4 caste-oppressed people have faced physical and verbal violence, 1 in 3 education discrimination, and 2 out of 3 workplace discrimination.
The National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and Equality Labs’ 2022 survey on Caste in Higher Education found that four in five caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty reported experiencing caste discrimination at the hands of their dominant-caste peers. Furthermore, three in four caste-oppressed stakeholders did not report that discrimination to their universities or colleges because caste was not added as a protected category, or because their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments lacked the competency to address their concerns.
In California, caste discrimination occurs across industries, including technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, and medicine. Caste discrimination against Dalits – people formerly called “untouchables” by dominant castes – has included bullying, harassment, bias, wage theft, sexual harassment, and even trafficking. Caste-oppressed people also experience housing discrimination when their caste identity is discovered.
Recent years have seen an increase of lawsuits regarding caste discrimination not just in the tech industry, but across California. Most notably, in 2001, federal law enforcement officials charged Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a dominant caste South Asian landlord with rental properties worth tens of millions of dollars who trafficked multiple Dalit minor girls and young women from India and subjected them to sexual servitude and labor exploitation in the United States.
Specifically, in Senator Wahab’s district, the ongoing Cisco lawsuit and the high-profile exit of Google whistleblower Tanuja Gupta as she spoke out about casteism in the company have revealed the pervasiveness of caste discrimination in California. The recent addition of caste in California State University’s anti-discrimination policies—efforts that originated at Cal State East Bay—highlights the need to address caste systemically. However, the lack of state and federal inclusion of caste in anti-discrimination policies continues to create issues for caste-oppressed individuals. Without making caste equity protections explicit in California law, workplaces across the state remain unsafe for caste-oppressed workers. Unlawful discrimination stifles workers who experience caste discrimination and continue to remain unsure of their rights in the face of grave discrimination.
Of the bill, Senator Aisha Wahab says “this historic legislation is about workers’ rights, women’s rights, queer rights, and civil rights. We want to ensure organizations and companies do not entrench caste discrimination in their practices or policies, and in order to do that we need to make it plainly clear that discrimination based on caste is against the law. ”
Below is a set of quotes from our stakeholders:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Equality Labs and author of The Trauma of Caste: “It is my honor that this Dalit History Month I can stand with my community and our allies in labor, gender, queer and racial justice movements and say that caste-oppressed Californians are here and we deserve workplaces and educational institutions free from discrimination and violence. As someone who grew up in this state, faced casteist bullying in k-12 schools and university, organized around the Laki Bali Reddy Case, fought for caste equity in California textbooks, and founded Equality Labs we know this bill is a result of 15 years of hard won organizing in the state by caste-oppressed people. We know that we might face threats and bigotry, but we will meet our opponents with love and empathy for this is how we turn our pain into power and we are unstoppable in our commitment to be free of caste discrimination. We are thrilled to be working with Senator Wahab’s office on this historic bill and we look forward to making California the first state in the nation to make caste equity protections explicit.”
Maya Kamble, Ambedkar Association of North America: “As an Amazon manager and a mother of dalit children, caste equity is important to my family and California’s future. There are over 170,000 Amazon workers for whom I know safer workplaces and an end to caste discrimination will make a huge difference. Dalit technologists like myself have had to endure caste discrimination across many tech companies and we need an urgent remedy to the discriminatory workplaces we are in. We thank Senator Wahab for listening to folks across the state and working with us to make all workplaces safe for all.”
Pooja Ren, Hindus for Caste Equity “As a Dalit Hindu I want to make sure we can make workplaces safe for all workers, as well as all schools for my children. Future Dalit generations in the diaspora must be protected. Pathways must be paved for our children to feel safe from casteist bullying and discrimination from casteist parents. For we must have justice when caste-discrimination occurs. We are a community that has suffered for centuries, and protection will give us the human rights as residents of California to live a life free from caste discrimination. We are tired of living in the closet and hiding our identities so that our children do not have to endure what we survived. Change can only happen through policy protections. We need to heal from the violence of caste and as Hindus it is our duty to stand in this powerful interfaith, intercaste, and multiracial movement to remedy caste inequality. For it is clear that caste discrimination is unlawful and through this bill we intend to set the table for our community to heal and reconcile from caste.”
Tanuja Gupta, Law Student, Activist, Former Google Engineering Program Manager: “This bill gives California’s nineteen million workers, 10% of whom work in tech alone, true legal recourse when experiencing workplace discrimination based on caste. To my former 82,000 Google co-workers here in California, this bill ensures that when a company claims it has a zero-tolerance policy for caste-based discrimination – there will be consequences when that claim turns out to NOT be true. This bill ensures that what happened to me will not happen to you.”
Anisha Singh, Executive Director of Sikh Coalition: “The Sikh Coalition is proud to join allies in supporting SB 403, which would add caste as a protected class in California, says Anisha Singh, Executive Director of the Sikh Coalition. The Sikh community knows the pain and trauma that comes with being targeted by hate and discrimination and continues to stand with those who are fighting oppression in all forms – all across our nation.”
Shakeel Syed, Executive Director of South Asian Network “South Asian Network is one of the largest service based organizations in the state serving the South Asian community. Inclusion is a priority within and outside our South Asian communities. And that is why we are clear that discriminating against working people in 2023 based on their caste is antithetical to any civil society. Our commitment to serving our members with dignity and equity is why we support SB-403 to end caste discrimination in California. We see caste operate amongst workers, survivors of intimate personal violence, and other service needs. Some of the complaints we have assisted with include wage theft, harassment, and discrimination in housing. That is why we need this bill and urge all California legislators to sponsor and support this bill right away.”
Alphabet Workers Union: “As California considers this historic step to address this civil rights issue and address the discrimination that caste-oppressed citizens and workers face in the state, we urge our elected officials to weigh in on the side of human, civil, gender and worker rights and vote yes on SB 403 to ensure California is safe and welcoming for all. We also condemn any attacks on caste oppressed workers and civil rights organizations demanding legal rights and advocating against discrimination. These attacks are not unlike the gaslighting that workers face whenever they take on management and we urge you to continue to create safe space for all protected classes of people coming to break the silence on caste.”
Alvina Yeh, Executive Director, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO: “The right to live, learn, and work freely without discrimination is fundamental for all AAPIs. Workers and their families face economic loss and workplace safety issues when they are discriminated against based on caste. We are excited that Senator Wahab is advancing this legislation as a role model for the rest of the country, so that we can commit to greater protections for Dalit and caste-oppressed workers, so that the labor movement can grow with greater strength and empowerment of our South Asian siblings.”
Prem Pariyar, Alameda County Human Relations Commission “As a Nepali Hindu Dalit I have experienced caste based discrimination multiple times in California. I fled Nepal to escape caste violence and I arrived in the US with very little but hope for a new life. However, I soon found myself to be one of many caste-oppressed individuals facing widespread discrimination. When I was a restaurant worker, I vividly remember how the South Asian restaurant owners assigned a shared room for all the workers to live. My dominant caste co-workers abused me with caste slurs and refused to share the room with me due to my caste-oppressed identity. Without any options I endured vicious harassment, wage theft, and ended up being homeless living in a van. I never want anyone to experience what I had to go through. Later as I became one of the first Nepali Dalit social workers in the state I saw casteism also impact my clients and at my University at Cal State Hayward. That is when I knew enough was enough. I worked with the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity to add caste to the Cal State University System and I saw how much changes when caste is added as a protected category to non-discrimination policies. That is why I am proud to stand with Senator Aisha Wahab as a fellow refugee and as newly appointed Alameda County Human Relations Commissioner, I strongly urge the State of California to protect the caste-oppressed Californian by supporting this bill.”
Amar Shergill, Democratic Chair Progressive Caucus: “There is broad consensus in California among Democrats and Republicans that discrimination, in any form, is unacceptable. It was my honor to lead the successful effort to ban caste discrimination in the California Democratic Party and we appreciate Senator Wahab leading the way to extend the prohibition to the State of California. It is our duty to stand up for equal opportunity for all Californians.”
Govind Acharya, Amnesty International USA: “Those living with systemic and intergenerational discrimination are likely to face multiple and disproportionate types of oppression. Caste discrimination violates the human rights and dignity of millions worldwide, including here in California. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues states further that ‘caste-based discrimination and violence goes against the basic principles of universal human dignity and equality, as it differentiates between “inferior” and “superior” categories of individuals which is unacceptable.’ These rights are unequivocal and necessary for justice and dignity. The right to equality and non-discrimination plays an essential role in achieving human rights and this legislation does exactly that.”
Shahira Bhangar, Californians for Caste Equity: “As a Dalit Sikh woman who was born and raised in California, this Bill is close to my heart. One of my earliest memories as a teenager was being bullied and harassed in school when my dominant caste friends found out about my caste. I also vividly recall landing my first Silicon Valley tech job post grad, but being questioned about my caste background by my supervisor. It is imperative that remedy is in place and that clear caste equity protections are implemented in the State of California immediately. The State of California is taking a historic lead for caste-oppressed folks everywhere – caste-discrimination is rampant and the first step to rectify this issue is with explicit protections.
As the bill continues through California’s legislative process, Equality Labs and our new coalition Californians for Caste Equity is thrilled for this historical legislation and we are proud of Senator Wahab for leading the way towards ensuring California is once again a leader in civil rights and equity.”
Senator Aisha Wahab represents the 10th Senate District, which includes the cities of Fremont, Hayward, Newark, Union City, Milpitas, San Jose, Santa Clara, and Sunnyvale; as well as unincorporated communities of Alameda and Santa Clara counties including Fairview, Alum Rock, East Foothills. Senator Wahab lives in Hayward. Website of Senator Aisha Wahab: https://sd10.senate.ca.gov
Equality Labs is a Dalit Civil Rights Organization that works on caste, gender, and racial equity. You can find us at equalitylabs.org and on our socials at @equalitylabs. For more information please reach out to Dani Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 1992, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO, is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers. Backed with strong support of the AFL-CIO, APALA has more than 20 chapters and pre-chapters and a national office in Washington, D.C.
Ambedkar Association of North America is guided by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s lifelong work and vision to uplift the downtrodden through education.
Hindus for Caste Equity works to uplift the caste-oppressed through a religious lens.
Sikh Coalition works towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.
South Asian Network is a community-rooted resource serving, supporting, and advocating for the South Asian community.
Alphabet Workers Union consists of a union of 1300+ members that strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. We promote solidarity and democracy.
Alameda County Human Relations Commission is a body appointed by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to advise them on community issues including but not limited to education, employment, and public safety.
Amnesty International USA works both across the United States and abroad to tackle the most pressing human rights violations.
Californians for Caste Equity is leading the movement to outlaw caste discrimination in the state of California.