Fresno, California, has become the second U.S. city to prohibit caste discrimination, adding caste and indigeneity as protected categories in its municipal code.
Historic move: In a unanimous vote on Sept. 28, Fresno’s city council moved to ban caste discrimination, marking a significant milestone in the fight against the deeply ingrained form of social stratification. The move comes months after Seattle set a precedent by becoming the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination through a similar city council vote in February.
About the ancient system: The caste system, originating in India over 3,000 years ago, divides Hindu society into rigid hierarchical groups based on birth and ancestry. It allows privileges for upper castes while repressing lower castes, with the Dalit community, historically labeled as “untouchables,” at the lowest rung.
A divisive issue: Caste discrimination has been a contentious issue within the South Asian community in California, particularly in Silicon Valley, where a substantial South Asian workforce resides. The debate has intensified in recent years, with caste discrimination gaining national attention in 2020 when California’s Civil Rights Department sued Cisco Systems over alleged caste discrimination.
SB 403 debate: California stands on the cusp of becoming the first U.S. state to ban caste discrimination, with the pending bill known as Senate Bill 403 now awaiting Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. Newsom has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the proposed bill.
Advocates for a statewide ban in California argue that explicitly defining caste discrimination in state law will empower individuals who have experienced wage theft, housing discrimination, workplace mistreatment or social exclusion due to their caste. They emphasize that caste discrimination is akin to other forms of discrimination and should be prohibited to protect marginalized communities.
Some South Asian Americans have expressed opposition, arguing that it unfairly targets Hindus, as the caste system is predominantly associated with Hinduism. They also contend that existing laws against discrimination based on religion and ancestry should suffice and highlight that India outlawed caste discrimination over seven decades ago.