As immigrants from South Asia make their way to the United States, they dream what most immigrants dream, to build a new life by working hard, and creating a better world for their children. But what happens when a consequence of birth, that limits their lives in their home countries, follows them here? Casteism is an ancient social system that categorizes families based on the rank they belong to. Though Casteism can be found throughout South Asia, it is primarily thought of as the discerner for social status throughout India, where the primary religion is Hinduism. Caste can not be changed, and those of a higher social status do not mingle with those of a lower status. This, over thousands of years, has translated into the modern world as a segregated society, one with no upward mobility, and one where lower-class groups are subject to difficult manual labor, less education, and separate neighborhoods and communities. Caste is precisely the kind of system that immigrants are hoping to escape when they leave their home countries behind, but what happens when the handcuffs of caste follow them overseas?
California is the first state to have introduced legislation banning Caste Based Discrimination. Senate Bill 403 was introduced by state Senator Aisha Wahab. California has one of the largest immigrant populations in America, and also a proportionately high number of immigrants from South Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and more. Equality Rights, a Caste Equality Group, based in Oakland, California, published a study about Caste in the United States in 2016. In that study, staggering data suggests that ¼ of Dalit (the lowest Caste) people have been victims of physical or verbal assault, and many students of the Dalit caste have been hindered in their education, from school-aged to University level.
The aforementioned bill, SB 403, which is now waiting to be signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom, aims to classify Caste as a protected class, discrimination in housing, education, and employment illegal in the same way that discrimination on the basis of race and sex is illegal. Language like this is a necessity in a diverse America and takes into account the changing demographics of this country. The United States has its own war with discrimination and racism, one that it is still reeling from, and Black and People of Color are dealing with the impact to this day. Protections against discrimination, while not the ultimate cure for racism are an important way to document and decrease the impacts of racism, casteism, and sexism.
Of course, the bill does have its critics. Hindu American Foundation is one of them- an advocacy group that notably supports Hindutva, a Hindu Supremacist ideology currently being touted by the BJP, the political party currently holding power in India. HAF managing director Samir Kalra says “Creating an entire separate category and law that only applies to minority communities is inconsistent with our constitutional norms.”
However, despite the existence of policy language prohibiting discrimination, many people from lower castes do feel as though they are rejected for employment, given difficult assignments, struggle in school, and fail to thrive socially due to discrimination on the basis of Caste. Only time will tell if this policy makes a tangible difference in the experiences of lower-caste Indians in America, but it is most certainly a step in eradicating the diverse forms of oppression in the United States.