U.S.

Newsom Vetoes Bill Banning Caste Discrimination

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Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made California the first state in the country to expressly ban discrimination based on caste, stating that the measure was “unnecessary” because it was already covered by existing laws.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rejection of the bill is a victory for some Hindu residents.Credit…Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Why It Matters: The bill reflects divisions in the state’s South Asian community and its influence as a growing demographic.

The bill, known as Senate Bill 403, had driven intense debate — and divisions — within the growing South Asian community in California recently, especially in Silicon Valley, where South Asians make up a significant share of the work force.

Governor Newsom’s rejection of the bill is a victory for some Hindu residents and organizations who had argued that the proposal unfairly targeted them because the caste system is most commonly associated with Hinduism. They asserted that caste discrimination in the United States was rare and that existing laws banning discrimination on the basis of ancestry and religion were sufficient.

“This has been months of concern and stress that we’ve been carrying about the impact that this would have on the civil rights of all South Asians regardless of background, and we’re glad the governor saw the problems with it,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, one of the organizations leading the opposition.

It comes as a blow to proponents of the bill who had argued that an explicit ban on caste discrimination was needed to increase awareness that such bias exists in the United States and to reassure victims who want to come forward. A group of South Asian activists had been on a hunger strike outside of Mr. Newsom’s office since early September to urge the governor to sign the bill.

In recent years, several universities and companies have added caste to their discrimination policies. Late last month, Fresno officially became the first city in California, and the second in the country after Seattle, to enact such a ban. But Governor Newsom is considering a future run for the White House, and he may not have wanted to get in the middle of longstanding ethnic and religious tensions among some Indian Americans, who are a fast-growing and vital demographic in purple suburbs and swing states.

This month, Republican state legislators, who largely opposed the measure, sent Mr. Newsom a letter echoing arguments from the bill’s opponents.

Background: There has been growing awareness in America of caste discrimination.

For thousands of years, Dalits have been a historically oppressed group of people relegated below even the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy in South Asia. India officially outlawed caste discrimination more than 70 years ago, but attitudes and social stratification persist.

In more than a dozen recent interviews with The New York Times, people of Dalit ancestry described various encounters with caste-based bigotry in the United States, in the form of wage theft, housing discrimination, mistreatment in the workplace and social exclusion.

For decades, the South Asian diaspora was composed mainly of upper caste people, in part because they had greater access to the resources necessary to qualify for skilled worker visas. More recently, though, affirmative action policies in India have allowed more people from oppressed communities to attend universities and move abroad.

The caste issue burst into the public conversation in 2020 when California’s Civil Rights Department sued Cisco Systems, accusing two of the company’s engineers of caste discrimination. Awareness of such discrimination has grown since then, and in March, Aisha Wahab, a California state senator, introduced Senate Bill 403. Senator Wahab’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What’s Next: Legal battles continue.

California lawmakers are not expected to override the veto. But other states and cities could introduce measures banning caste discrimination.

State regulators in California have continued to pursue their lawsuit against Cisco, though they dismissed their claims against the engineers.

Opponents of the bill are likely to continue arguing against new protections. Last year, two Hindu professors sued California State University, hoping to block its addition of caste to its discrimination policy.

Shawn Hubler contributed reporting.

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