Open Letter

Open Letter

Dear Assembly members Evan Low and Alex Lee,

We write to you today as a group of organizations transcending lines of faith and race to stand firmly in support of SB403 and the fight to end caste discrimination. We represent the full diversity of the Asian American community, as well as a number of queer liberation organizations.1 Informed by a deep understanding of our shared struggles for civil rights and an ethic of mutual solidarity, we express full support for SB403 and the struggle against caste discrimination. 

As our representatives, and particularly as representatives who are queer, Asian, and who ran on progressive ideals, we are frustrated to know that you are standing in opposition to the protection of caste-oppressed communities. 

Fundamentally, your positions on SB403 threaten to legitimize spurious arguments that oppose protections for oppressed communities and which are coming from a narrow minority of right-wing organizations claiming to represent Hindu Americans. These arguments, as is the case with much of the far-right, draw on fear and division. They bear chilling similarities to the current wave of attacks on queer and trans people, attacks on reproductive justice, and the censoring of ethnic studies and critical race theory across the U.S. These right-wing arguments have also been refuted by the large number of Hindu- and Indian-Americans that are in support of SB403. We strongly encourage you to stand with us on the side of progress and hope you will take a principled stance in support of caste-oppressed communities, and revise your positions on this matter.  We also hope that you will work to educate yourself on the issue of caste, and express your full support for SB403 without delay or dilution. 

Our demands are threefold:

1.    We ask that you withdraw your proposal for a “study bill” and a “pause” on legislation like SB403. The claim that further research is required on caste is an insult to the suffering of the many caste-oppressed Californians who have stepped forward with testimonies of caste-based discrimination at significant personal and professional risk. These are nothing short of delay tactics to stall progress and protections for oppressed communities. Would a similar question about racism, sexism or homophobia ever be voiced?

A mountain of evidence exists to show that caste discrimination has traveled across the United States – and in California in particular. The caste system, as you know, is a system of social stratification, oppression, and exclusion acknowledged as among the oldest and most pernicious forms of discrimination existing in the world today. Though it has taken new forms as it traveled across time and space from its origins in South Asia, the hallmarks of the caste system remain intact: the denial of equal opportunity, the social isolation of oppressed castes, and the erosion of human fraternity and dignity. Boasting about one’s own dominant caste status, outing an oppressed-caste person’s caste status, forcing disclosure of one’s caste, and discrimination based on caste, are all prevalent practices in places of employment and education in the USA.2 Additional harms include caste categories in US-based dating apps;3 caste-based organizations that exclude Americans from historically oppressed castes;4 proposals for gated communities (“Agraharams”)5 in the US where putatively only members of a dominant caste can buy homes; and emails sent out to mailing lists exhorting managers not to hire workers from oppressed caste groups.6 All of these, and many other forms of caste discrimination, have been methodically documented by civil rights groups in the United States. Only a few of these cases make it to the limelight, like the infamous CISCO lawsuit,7 where an oppressed caste engineer reported being openly discriminated against by his upper-caste managers,8 and the infamous BAPS Swaminarayan Case, covered in the New York Times,9 which involved the alleged trafficking and exploitation of oppressed caste workers. But there are many more cases that disappear into the ether without making headlines.

California is particularly a site of caste-based discrimination. California is a home to many communities who have attempted to escape caste discrimination by immigrating to the US. Unfortunately, the specter of caste has followed them here. In Silicon Valley, a variety of software companies have acted to make caste a protected category in the face of widespread testimony of caste-based discrimination among software engineers. Companies that have instituted caste as a protected category in their company policy include Apple Inc.10 and CISCO.11 The Alphabet Workers Union has also called for caste to be added as a protected category to Google’s company policy,12 and has written in support of SB403.13 However, caste-based discrimination is present in other spaces as well. Testimony by oppressed caste students has led to a series of Californian educational institutions to recognize caste as an axis of discrimination. In January 2022, the entire California State University system added caste as a category in its antidiscrimination policies.14 One academic paper contains detailed testimony from Nepali Californians experiencing discrimination on the basis of caste in housing, at work, at religious gatherings, and in romantic relationships, as well as encountering caste slurs and insults in conversation.15

2.    We ask you to refute the argument that protecting Americans from caste discrimination will somehow amount to discrimination against Indian or South Asian Americans. Such claims are akin to allegations that protections against racism would somehow target white Americans, that Title IX protections for women would somehow discriminate against men, and that protections for LGBTQ+ individuals would target those not from the Queer community. These arguments have historically been used to deny justice to oppressed groups, and only seek to further the continuance of discriminatory practices by forestalling accountability for them. They put forward a divisive understanding of inter-ethnic relations that is zero-sum rather than pluralistic, and that fails to understand that all of us are stronger and safer when our neighbors are too. We reject this argument in its entirety and state in one voice that South Asian Americans – and Americans as a whole – see these so-called harms as imaginary, misleading, and deceitful. We hope you will join us in doing so. 

3.    Finally, we ask that you educate yourself on the sources of opposition to SB403 that you have likely been conversing with: Hindu Supremacist groups, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), the Coalition of Hindu Organizations of North America (CoHNA), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), that all trace their roots to the extremist, Hindu supremacist organization in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative has published factsheets on all three organizations, and their extremist and Islamophobic positions,16 17 and this information is corroborated by a significant body of independent reporting and research.18 They represent a brand of politics that is racist, casteist, patriarchal and homophobic, one that should have no say over Democratic party lawmakers. Indeed, most often these groups associate closely with far-right, White supremacist and Republican actors, and feel comfortable using their identity to play a specific type of racial wedge politics that works to divide communities of color. Most recently, both the VHP-A and the HAF have hosted and amplified the candidacy of Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republican candidate for President.

Finally, we also call upon you, as LGBTQ+ lawmakers, to recognize the harms these groups have perpetrated on Queer communities and disassociate from them. In 2013, for example, the VHP, the parent organization of the VHP-A, termed homosexuality an “imported disease”; more recently, in the context of debates in India over the legalization of same-sex marriage, its legal cell passed a resolution opposing same-sex marriage.19 The least we can expect from lawmakers representing the Queer community is your solidarity with caste-oppressed Americans (many of whom are themselves Queer) and the willingness to extend to them the same legal protections that emerged from the historic and continuing struggles of the LGBTQ+ community for equality and respect. 

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