Opinion: SB-403 Protects Caste Oppressed Community
By SHAKEEL SYED
Even though Californa holds the title as one of the nation’s most populous and progressive U.S. states, its South Asian residents frequently struggle under an insidious form of discrimination based on their caste identity. Caste-based discrimination, bigotry, and violence remain one of the biggest threats to the advancement of South Asian American civil rights, as they proceed to hold back the potential of not just Dalit Californians, but all of us as we pursue opportunity in our new homeland. The California State Senate voted 34-1 and has sent it to the State Assembly which hopefully will also vote to ban caste discrimination and end the intergenerational harm of caste.
Caste systems are a type of structural discrimination based on work and descent. There are many global caste systems and the South Asian caste system is one of the oldest in the world. For South Asian immigrants, our caste system ranks people according to their alleged purity and pollution. With both data and stories confirming the South Asian diaspora has brought caste hierarchy with them to their new lives in the United States, we must act with urgency to stop casteist workplace abuse, bias, and violence. As an advocate for the South Asian community, I am calling for the end of this outdated, oppressive, and harmful system of dehumanizing fellow human beings.
A 2016 survey from Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs reports that one in four caste-oppressed people in the U.S. have faced physical or verbal assault and one in three have been discriminated against in their educational institutions. These staggering numbers reflect the undeniable struggles of the Dalit community—a community that has traditionally been denied integration into society by the privileged, dominant caste.
Opponents of SB-403 falsely argue that this bill would cause them and their families great harm. In actuality, this bill aims to rectify centuries of harm. This anti-discrimination bill seeks to protect everyone; it is not at all exclusive—but caste is. It is easy to feel threatened by legislation like SB-403 if you and your family are positioned at the top of the caste hierarchy. But denying or running away from the reality of caste-based oppression only serves to permit discrimination, injustice, and violence.
Caste violence pervades many U.S. institutions and workplaces; it exists within every sector. Former Google Engineering Program Manager Tanuja Gupta was retaliated against for speaking out about caste discrimination in the workplace. This story of retaliation is an attempt to silence our collective voice; these hateful tactics are all too familiar amongst our entire caste-oppressed community. Companies should be legally and morally required to protect all of their employees. Now, SB-403 may give us the legal protections we need in order to remain safe and the impetus to keep standing up for our basic human rights. As a community-based social service organization, my agency helps community members resolve the challenges they confront in their workplace and in their community. Not too long ago, a community member shared with us his story of being underpaid and overworked by his upper-caste employer and was concerned of the ramifications if the matter was reported to the Department of Labor. We believe many similar cases go unreported every day and we know SB-403 will empower Dalit people to seek redress to the injustice that is meted out to them.
SB-403 is but one more important step in our nation’s journey to end the malaise of caste-based discrimination. The bill’s win in the California Senate is a win for all who have historically suffered from the violence and trauma of caste. And this human rights bill has just two more processes ahead of it before the legislation becomes California law.
As a proud member of the coalition Californians for Caste Equity, I urge others to advocate for the passing of this profound bill. It is time for all of California—and all of the nation—to support SB-403 and stop the malaise of discriminatory practices toward caste-oppressed people.
(Syed is Executive Director of South Asian Network based in CA)