Prominent academic Cornel West backs proposed California ban on caste-based discrimination

Prominent civil rights philosopher, academic and Sacramento native Dr. Cornel West is lending his support to a proposal that would make discrimination on the basis of caste illegal in California.

Authored by Sen. Aisha Wahab, D-Fremont, Senate Bill 403 would add caste to the list of existing civil rights protections covered under California law, such as race, sexual orientation or disability.

Caste systems exist in many parts of the world, including India and South Asia. But supporters of SB 403 say caste discrimination also happens in the United States, including the Golden State.

According to the Associated Press, a caste is a social hierarchy based on one’s birth tied to concepts of purity and social status. Those at the bottom rungs of the social ladder, typically referred to as Dalits or “untouchables,” often face discrimination in many forms, including employment, housing and healthcare.

West, who grew up in the South Sacramento community of Glen Elder, spoke to supporters of SB 403 in a recorded message during a press conference Wahab held Wednesday at the Capitol.

Citing the spiritual activism of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his call to action, West called the issue of caste discrimination the great “moral and spiritual issue of our time,” saying the system loses sight of the “precious humanity of too many of our fellow human beings.”

“In all honesty, this is part and parcel of a moral and spiritual awakening in which we ensure that every human being no matter what color, no matter what gender, no matter what sexual orientation, no matter what caste is treated with the dignity they deserve,” West said.

Recent cases cited

In terms of caste discrimination in California, SB 403’s supporters point to several recent high profile cases. According to Time Magazine, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit in 2020 against Cisco Systems because two dominant-caste Indian American employees were discriminating against a Dalit employee.

In another case, Tanuja Gupta, a former employee of Google News, alleges she faced significant pushback for inviting a leader with Dalit advocacy group Equality Labs to speak to employees during April, which is Dalit History Month, according to the Associated Press.

The talk was canceled and Gupta accused Google of retaliation, which the company has denied.

Wahab, the first Afghan-American woman elected to public office in the United States, said there are “countless others” in California who face caste-based oppression, but those folks do not feel safe to speak out.

“As California becomes increasingly diverse, our policies and our laws need to stretch further and deeper in protecting people from caste-based discrimination,” Wahab said.

Several groups have joined together to create a “Coalition of Californians for Caste Equity” in support of the caste ban. Equality Labs is one of the main groups supporting SB 403. Other supporters include Fresno-based Sikh organization the Jakara Movement and Amnesty International.

But SB 403 does have its opponents. Organizations like the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America say such policies could further harm communities like Hindus and Indian Americans who are already targets of hate and discrimination, the Associated Press reported.

Others have called similar policies reckless, saying there’s not enough data to support that kind of legislation.

Equality Labs says their data indicates one out of every four people impacted by caste systems have faced physical and verbal violence, while one in three have faced education discrimination, and two out of three have faced workplace discrimination.

The group estimates that caste systems impact 1.9 billion people in South Asia and 5.7 million South Asian Americans.

Sen. Aisha Wahab is shown speaking on March 22, 2023 at the California State Capitol in support of her bill which would ban caste discrimination in the state.
Sen. Aisha Wahab is shown speaking on March 22, 2023 at the California State Capitol in support of her bill which would ban caste discrimination in the state. Victor A. Patton [email protected]

Movement gaining momentum

Although many Americans aren’t familiar with caste systems, the movement to ban them has been gaining momentum for years. Last month Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination.

Supporters of SB 403 like Prem Pariyar, a social worker and Alameda County Human Relations commissioner, say a law is needed because caste discrimination is a reality in California.

Pariyar, who is a Nepali Hindu Dalit, said after arriving in the U.S. in 2015 he was the target of caste discrimination. “When I was a restaurant worker, I do remember how the South Asian restaurant owners assigned a shared room for all the workers and my co-workers who were identified as the dominant caste refused to share a room due to my caste-oppressed identity,” he said.

“Many Nepali Dalits (in California) are facing caste-based discrimination everyday in housing, workplace, schools and places of worship. This is not only an Indian issue, but also rampant in Nepali diaspora and other South Asian diaspora.”

Others say caste discrimination doesn’t just impact immigrants. Shaira Banger, an California-born Sikh tech worker, said she began being the target of caste discrimination by high school, in the form of bullying from other students.

Later in life, she said a supervisor at a tech startup interrogated her about her caste background. “I felt helpless. I was afraid of losing my job and I was never protected,” Banger said.

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