Home Religion California’s compromise ‘caste’ bill promotes democracy in more ways than one

California’s compromise ‘caste’ bill promotes democracy in more ways than one

(RNS) — If ever Otto von Bismarck’s maxim “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best” has been proved true, it was in the progress of California’s SB-403, legislation that sought to add caste as a stand-alone category under the state’s nondiscrimination law. As it passed out of the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee earlier this month, headed for a vote by the full Assembly, the revised text is a product of reasonable compromise that preserves the dignity of South Asians.

Prior to the Judiciary hearing on July 5, SB-403, introduced by Bay Area Senator Aisha Wahab, contained demonizing language about the South Asian communities, painting them without substantiation as engaging in horrible criminal conduct, including oppression, human trafficking and rape.

The original bill mentioned the word ‘caste’ 65 times — a word the senator knew is strongly associated with South Asians. Even if the bill defined “caste” broadly, letters and other material provided to the committee by supporters reinforced the association of caste and South Asians.

Opponents argued that, while any kind of discrimination is wrong, creating a separate category for “caste” unconstitutionally singles out one ethnic community for legal scrutiny. The existing neutral category of “ancestry” is sufficient to address cases of alleged discrimination under caste traditions.

The California Civil Rights Department has tacitly agreed with this approach for several years, having filed its case of alleged discrimination at Cisco Systems using ancestry as the protected category.

The Judiciary Committee has now agreed as well.

In the version of SB-403 now moving through California’s legislature, the bill has been drastically amended. The word caste is now mentioned once or twice and is defined as “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status.” It appears with a broader category of ancestry, which includes “lineal descent, parentage, heritage, caste, or inherited status.” This clarification has, if anything, expanded protection and at least made this category’s protections more obvious.

Most importantly, the language in the original text targeting and disparaging South Asian and other ethnic communities as undesirable, oppressive and violent immigrants has also been removed. 

But the continued presence of ‘caste’ in the clarification, in spite of a definition that offers more verbal gymnastics than meaning, remains concerning, given its nearly exclusive association with South Asians.

As my colleague Samir Kalra said, “So long as caste is equated with India in the public imagination and the state of California requires public schools to teach caste as something unique and inherent to India and Hinduism, ‘caste’ will always be associated with South Asians. The specific inclusion of the word under ‘ancestry’ will be used to stigmatize and profile us as a matter of law.”

The silver lining to this otherwise dark episode is the civic awakening the bill brought about among thousands of South Asians across California who faced down a threat to our rights. These new activists educated themselves about the issue and the state’s political process, spread the word, made phone calls to legislators, met with legislators, found allies, called in favors, trekked to Sacramento to testify and did everything in their power to fight a racist and discriminatory bill.

Politics is often complicated and legislation the end result of compromise. A radically transformed bill, albeit not perfect, is as much the result of our community coming together as never before to speak truth to power as it is the compromises brokered by members of the Assembly who took our concerns to heart.

(Suhag Shukla is executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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