California lawmakers voted Tuesday to ban caste-based discrimination, adding protections for people of South Asian descent who say they are excluded from traditional U.S. employment and housing fairness guarantees.
The bill, the first of its kind in the United States, now goes to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who must decide whether to sign it into law.
Caste is an ancient and complex system that regulates people’s social status based on their birth. It is mostly associated with India and Hinduism, but caste-based divisions exist in other faiths and countries as well.
State and federal laws already prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, and religion. California’s civil rights law further prohibits discrimination based on medical condition, genetic information, sexual orientation, immigration status and ancestry, among other things.
On Tuesday, the state Senate voted 31 to 5 to approve a bill that would redefine “descent” to include “line of descent, inheritance, birth, caste or any inherited social status.” The bill was authored by State Senator Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and Afghan-American woman elected to a state legislature.
“Caste discrimination will not be tolerated in California,” she said.
India has banned caste discrimination since 1948, the second year after India’s independence from Britain. South Asians have been pushing for caste protections in the U.S. in recent years, and many major colleges and universities in the U.S. have included caste in their nondiscrimination policies, including the UC and Cal State systems. In February, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination.
Now, California may become the first state to do so. The bill easily passed the legislature with only a few dissenting votes. But the proposal drew a strong reaction from the state’s South Asian community. Public hearings on the bill lasted several hours this summer, with hundreds lining up around the Capitol to testify for or against it.
Opponents argued the bill was unfair because it only applied to people based on the caste system. A letter to state lawmakers from the Indian American Foundation earlier this year worried that South Asians could be “forced to answer intrusive questions about who they are married to or be judged.”
“This bill targets Hindus and East Indians,” said Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, who voted against the bill Tuesday.
California lawmakers are in the final two weeks of the legislative session. Lawmakers have until Sept. 14 to act on nearly 1,000 bills. When lawmakers are done, Newsom will have a month to decide whether to sign the bills into law.