After weeks of advocacy by caste equity civil rights leaders from Equality Labs, the California Coalition for Caste Equity, California State Senator Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) and countless others, the California State Senate Judiciary Committee provided a unanimous decision to advance a landmark bill that would ban caste discrimination throughout the state. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee members unanimously voted ‘Yes’ to move the anti-caste discrimination bill forward to the Senate, marking the first time the State has heard or advanced a bill that would make caste protections explicit.
Caste is a system of severe exclusion and domination with its origins in South Asia. This system of violence has been carried over by the South Asian diaspora and currently affects nearly 5.7 million South Asian Americans and over 1.9 billion people in South Asia. While caste discrimination is rampant in South Asia, it is also prevalent throughout the South Asian diaspora 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.
Senate Bill SB 403, courageously introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab—California’s first Muslim and Afghan Senator—would be life-changing for the caste-oppressed community, a community that has been repeatedly exposed to historical violence, exclusion, oppression, discrimination, and bullying.
“The five letters of caste might seem so small to you, but for those of us oppressed by our perceived caste for centuries, they spell freedom, dignity and lay out a path for healing and reconciliation.” states Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs.
This big moment for caste equity follows our recent announcements that Harvard University, the entire city of Seattle, UC Davis, California State University, and many others have added caste to their non-discrimination policies. Equality Labs applauds the California State Judiciary Committee for taking steps to expand the urgent movement to ban caste discrimination. This bold move aims to provide vital protections for caste-oppressed Californians. Caste-oppressed community members, the caste equity civil rights movement, and its supporters are often met with fierce opposition and violence. This bill not only offers tangible legal remedy for those who have often had to live in fear, but also offers hope and healing for future generations.
Below is a set of quotes from our stakeholders:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Equality Labs and author of The Trauma of Caste: “Today, I proudly stand in solidarity with my caste-oppressed community members, caste equity movement organizers, and allies to say that caste-oppressed Californians are now one step closer to attaining the protections they deserve and are entitled to. I founded Equality Labs so that my community could have lives free from violent attacks and discrimination; now, California is walking alongside us to do just that. As someone who grew up in this state, faced bullying due to my caste, organized around the Laki Bali Reddy Case, fought for caste equity in California textbooks, and founded Equality Labs, I know the struggles and adversity caste-oppressed Californians have unjustly faced firsthand. I am here to say I will always stand with my caste-oppressed community members as we turn our pain into power and transform our trauma into collective healing. I am thrilled to say California is well on its way to becoming the first U.S. state to recognize our status as human beings and redefine caste equity protections.”
Pooja Ren, Hindus for Caste Equity: “As a Dalit Hindu, I want to make sure we can create a California and an entire world that is safe for my children. Future Dalit generations must have legal protections to ensure that they can thrive. It is up to us to build the legal structures necessary to ensure our children are safe from violence and discrimination based on their caste. The time for justice is now. Our community has long been punished for our caste-oppressed identities and now California’s proposed protections will allow us to have our human rights back. We can finally be free from histories of pain. Real change is happening due to protections like SB 403. Hindus must band together in this powerful interfaith, intercaste, and multiracial movement to remedy caste inequality. Caste discrimination is unlawful and unjust—this bill will heal us all from the horrors of caste.”
Tanuja Gupta, Caste Equity Legal Task Force, Former Google Engineering Program Manager: “It was so refreshing to see the California Senate Judiciary Committee members interact with the witnesses in good faith. They interrogated the inflammatory rhetoric, listened to reason and looked at the evidence – and in the end, civil rights prevailed. Onward!”
Prem Pariyar, Alameda County Human Relations Commission, Chair- Equity and Policy sub-committee “As a Nepali Hindu Dalit I am very familiar with caste-based discrimination. I left my home country of Nepal to come to the U.S. and become free from caste violence. Unfortunately, caste discrimination followed me and many others from the South Asian diaspora here to our new lives. When I was a restaurant worker, I was repeatedly abused with caste slurs, endured vicious harassment, wage theft, and ended up being homeless living in a van. On the other hand, due to my caste equity organizing efforts, I have also seen how much positive social change can occur for my community members when caste is added as a protected category to non-discrimination policies. I continue to stand with Senator Aisha Wahab as a fellow immigrant and as the newly appointed Alameda County Human Relations Commissioner, to support the State of California as it continues to consider protecting caste-oppressed Californians by implementing SB 403.”
Amar Shergill, Democratic Chair Progressive Caucus: “California has made it clear that it will not tolerate discrimination or violence of any kind. I am honored to have led the successful effort to ban caste discrimination in the California Democratic Party. I congratulate Senator Wahab for taking a stand against caste discrimination and working to implement legal protections for vulnerable communities throughout the entire State of California. It is our utmost duty and honor to create equal opportunity for all Californians—no matter their caste.”
Shahira Bhangar, Californians for Caste Equity: “I am a Dalit Sikh woman who was born and raised in California, so this bill is very personal to me. Ever since I was a child, I have been bullied by dominant caste individuals. Even after landing my first Silicon Valley tech job post grad, I was still questioned about my caste background and subsequently ostracized due to my caste-oppressed identity. Moving this bill forward provides remedy for my fellow caste-oppressed Californians and makes it evident that caste equity protections are a legal priority for the State of California. California’s historic decision is a win for caste-oppressed folks across the world. Explicit protections will help my community heal from the trauma of caste.”
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 email@example.com.
Hindus for Caste Equity works to uplift the caste-oppressed through a religious lens.
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.
Californians for Caste Equity is leading the movement to outlaw caste discrimination in the state of California.
Caste Equity Legal Task Force is a nation-wide coalition of litigators, law professors, legal advocates and law school students committed to ending caste-based discrimination.