On Wednesday, a California lawmaker introduced a bill that would make caste discrimination illegal in the state Senate. If passed, California – home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies – would become the first US state to ban class discrimination.
The bill was drafted and introduced by Senator Aisha Wahab, a Democratic lawmaker who proposed adding caste as a protected category in California’s anti-discrimination law in addition to gender, race and disability.
It comes a month after Seattle became the first US city to ban class discrimination following a local council vote.
Ms. Wahab represents a northern California county with a large South Asian population, many of whom work in technology companies.
The Afghan-American lawmaker, who was raised by an American couple in the San Francisco Bay Area after her parents died, said that although she herself did not experience caste discrimination, she did understand because of where she grew up.
The caste system is one of the oldest forms of social discrimination still in existence in South Asian countries, including India and Nepal.
In India, Dalits (formerly untouchables) and other lower castes are considered historically disadvantaged groups and enjoy constitutional protection in the form of quotas and anti-discrimination laws. .
Dalit activists and scholars say such recognition is also needed in the West, especially the United States. Many of them have been striving for years to spread the same perception of class and its complexity. The country’s tech industry has tackled this problem in recent years.
In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems based on a complaint that an Indian Dalit engineer was subjected to caste discrimination at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
The following year, Tanuja Gupta, a senior executive at Google News, resigned after the company rescinded an invitation to rights activist Dalit Thenmozhi Soundararajan to speak to employees.
Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs, a civil rights organization, said the incidents underscore that Californians “deserve a workplace and educational facility that is free from discrimination.”
Supporters of the bill say caste discrimination needs a legislative solution. One of them is Maya Kamble, who uses a pseudonym for her advocacy work. She works as a manager in a large US company and said she has decided not to reveal herself as Dalit to her current colleagues.
She said, at her old workplace, a manager who once trusted her with difficult tasks changed her attitude when she learned about her level. When the next big thing happened, she said he told her to stay away because she was “unhappy”.
“It was a huge shock to me and my colleagues,” she said, adding that she would file a complaint if there were caste laws. “[HR reps] don’t know anything about caste. How can I tell them that it comes from untouchable caste?” she said, adding that she had had similar experiences coming to the United States as a student decades ago
Several educational, corporate, and political institutions in California have developed anti-caste policies.
Last year, California State University (Cal State), the largest public university system in the United States, passed a policy change that added caste as a protected category.
That same year, Apple announced that it had updated its employee policy two years earlier to prohibit caste discrimination. In 2021, the California Democratic Party added caste as a protected category to its code of conduct.
The workers union at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, released a statement supporting Ms. Wahab’s bill.