California Assembly passes landmark Caste Discrimination Bill SB 403

Ritu Jha–

Some called it winning a tough, uphill task but others called it a black day for California History after the much-debated anti-caste discrimination bill — ‘SB 403 Discrimination on the Basis of Ancestry’ — passed the California Assembly floor with 50-3 votes, on August 28.

California State Senator Aisha Wahab, the author of SB 403

Introduced by California State Senator Aisha Wahab (Democrat, 10th District) SB 403 seems one step closer to the Governor’s desk. When the Senate passes it and Governor Gavin Newsom signs it into law, California will become the first state in America to make caste bias illegal by adding it as a protected category in the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

ALSO READ: indica’s comprehensive coverage of SB 403

The historic legislation will revise California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, Education, and Housing codes by adding caste as a protected category under “ancestry.”

Protests, petitions, and meetings with lawmakers did not stop California Assemblymembers from voting smoothly without hurdle or strong debate. It is now expected to move to the Senate for its final concurrence vote before heading to the Governor to be signed into official state law.

Since its introduction earlier this year, the bill has flown through the different steps in the legislature and has been amended several times.

The last amendment was August 24: “Ancestry” includes, but is not limited to, lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any inherited social status. Nothing precludes a person from alleging discrimination on the basis of ancestry in combination with discrimination based upon other protected characteristics. Caste” means an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status. “A system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status” may be characterized by factors that may include, but are not limited to, inability or restricted ability to alter inherited status; socially enforced restrictions on marriage, private and public segregation, and discrimination; and social exclusion on the basis of perceived status.”

It also states: “This bill would incorporate additional changes to Section 12926 of the Government Code proposed by AB 524 to be operative only if this bill and AB 524 are enacted and this bill is enacted last.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, speaking on behalf of Californians for Caste Equity told indica over phone, they have had over 700 visits as part of the advocacy in the Assembly and she feels excited and the Bill looks pretty good. There are no further amendments to the Bill, she said.

“Thank you to all the Assembly members who voted in support of SB 403 today. We are protecting people from a long-standing form of discrimination with SB 403,” Senator Wahab said on X (formerly Twitter).

Among Indian-Americans, lawmakers Jasmeet Bains and Ash Kalra supported the bill, which was introduced in the Senate just weeks after Seattle became the first city in the US to ban caste discrimination.

The Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA), a non-profit working towards underprivileged castes, called the development “landmark”, “historic” and “unprecedented”.

“This is what Educate, Agitate and Organize looks like,” AANA wrote on X.

“When you have two bills adding the same part of the government code, you have to include technical language so that they don’t void each other. But no other amendments are there,” Soundararajan said, referring to AB-524 Discrimination: Family Caregiver Status.

On changes that have been made in the Bill, she said: “It’s the very last item that says if one Bill passes and the other Bill doesn’t, it doesn’t cancel each other out. It’s not significant to the impact of our Bill. It’s about technicalities when you have two bills that are editing the same portion of the governing code.”

Senator Wahab, the author of the Bill, has been subject of criticism from the Hindu American community, many of whom have been calling it “unjust”, and have maintained from the beginning that it targets only Hindu Americans.

The Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), one of the opponents of the SB 403, on passing the Assembly voted 50-3 called it, “a black day for California History.”

Through a press note, CoHNA stated, that the passing of a bill that is not facially neutral and written to specifically target Hindu Americans is the latest in a long line of unjust bills, like the Asian Exclusion Act, which were popular at the time of their passing and were used to target minorities of color. This bill will be no different and is indeed worse since it ignored the mounting body of evidence about the overreach of CRD in the Cisco lawsuit, the flawed data from a hate group that underpinned the whole effort, the championing of this bill by foreign actors and the rising numbers of Dalit and Bahujan voices speaking against it.

CoHNA added, “Our nation’s checkered history has shown us that the path to progress is fraught with setbacks and today certainly represents a dangerous backsliding on the promise of equal treatment and justice for all-irrespective of their religion and cultural roots. Casteism and #Hinduphobic profiling won today. But for CoHNA, the fight goes on. Ultimately, we are confident justice will prevail, even if it takes time.”

However, Amar Shergill, Chair Emeritus, California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus, said through a press note, “Today, once again, we see the success of the bipartisan, interfaith, and inter-caste coalition that is building an overwhelming statewide consensus to end caste discrimination in California. There is broad consensus in California among Democrats and Republicans that discrimination, in any form, is unacceptable. It was my honor to help advance the successful effort to ban caste discrimination in the California Democratic Party, and we appreciate Senator Wahab leading the way to extend the prohibition to the State of California. It is our duty to stand up for equal opportunity for all Californians.”

Hindu American Foundation’s Executive Director, Suhag Shukla said: “Today is a sad day. California has reawakened its racist past in passing legislation that demonizes and targets South Asians and Hindus. Fifty California legislators chose to side with anti-Hindu hate groups rather than showing moral courage and upholding the Constitution. When a state legislator pushes a law with the intent of targeting an ethnic community, it’s not only racist, it’s unconstitutional. We will explore every option to protect the rights of Hindu Californians.”

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