Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
Opinion: Caste bill would harm California’s South Asian communities

Author: Barbara A. McGraw
Publication: Mercurynews.com
Date: April 20, 2023
URL:      https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/04/20/opinion-caste-bill-would-harm-californias-south-asian-communities/amp/

Sen. Aisha Wahab broke new ground as California’s first Muslim state senator and one of the first Afghan Americans elected to public office in the United States. Now she is on the cusp of unearthing our state’s ugly, xenophobic past with a proposal that would be harmful to the state’s South Asian communities and other communities of color.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, nativist Californians passed laws targeting various communities of color. One law was the 1850 Foreign Miners’ Tax that levied a substantial monthly fee on California-born Mexicans and foreign immigrants for the right to mine. Others were the California Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 that targeted “aliens ineligible for citizenship” — Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Indian immigrant farmers — to deprive them of their agricultural land and long-term leases.

Now in 2023, one of the first things Wahab, D-Hayward, wants to do is amend California’s Civil, Education and Government Codes by adding “caste” as a protected class. While the bill, SB 403, may be well-intended — caste discrimination is wrong — the unintended negative consequences are enormous.

If passed, the bill would limit equal protection and due process rights of South Asians (and others), resulting in racial profiling because it legislates false claims based on national origin, ethnicity and ancestry.

Every racial and ethnic community has its internal dynamics, some positive and others harmful. Harmful dynamics may spill over into the workplace or other places where discrimination is prohibited. But there are laws in place that offer protection and appropriate remedies if that happens.

As California grows increasingly diverse, the solution to addressing subtler forms of intra-community discrimination is not to expand specific categories that target particular ethnic groups, resulting in discrimination against them. It is by deploying existing laws with their broad, neutral categories that provide everyone with protection and the obligation to treat everyone fairly.

Everyone has a race. Everyone has a color. Everyone has an age. But when it comes to “caste,” it is South Asians who are presumed to have one. Senator Wahab’s proposal presumes that South Asians necessarily have one and identify by it, which is not true.

There is no agreed upon definition of caste — even the government of India does not have a definition. When I was researching caste for the Hinduism chapter of my world religions book, I asked my stepson’s Indian mother-in-law what her caste was when she was in India. Her answer? Christian.

Obviously, stereotypical ideas about caste are not accurate and ought not be used as a means of discriminating against people of South Asian dissent. But the senator’s bill erroneously defines “caste” regardless, making some castes the “oppressed” with those not so designated presumed to be the “oppressors.” The definition even indicates that a spouse’s background could be evidence of casteism. Consequently, while personal information about anyone else’s spouse would be irrelevant in a work-related discrimination investigation, if one is South Asian, it could be.

Wahab’s bill creates a discriminatory policy that singles out South Asians primarily (briefly referencing other communities of color), although existing laws already protect against discrimination based on birthplace, descent, culture or accent — all things that can apply to caste, clan, kin, tribe or any of the many ways people identify, without singling out particular ethic groups for scrutiny.

The question for Wahab and other California lawmakers from constituents like me is: What kind of history do you want to make? One that repeats our darkest chapter, or one that shines the light of mutual respect and dignity on all Californians, regardless of who they are or where they come from?


-Barbara A. McGraw, J.D., Ph.D., is founding director of Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism and professor of social ethics, law & public life at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga.
«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements