South Asians Are Divided Over a Pending Ban on Caste Discrimination

It’s Monday. Not everyone thinks a bill awaiting Governor Newsom’s signature that would ban caste-based discrimination is a helpful step. Plus, Laphonza Butler is the governor’s choice for the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Supporters of Senate Bill 403, which would ban caste-based discrimination, in the State Assembly in Sacramento in August.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times


It’s an ancient system of social stratification that emerged in India thousands of years ago.

It is also a term that has driven intense debate — and divisions — within the growing South Asian community in California recently, especially in Silicon Valley, where South Asians comprise a significant share of the work force.

On Thursday, Fresno officially became the first city in California, and the second in the country, to enact a ban on discrimination based on caste. Seattle passed a similar ordinance earlier this year.

And any day now, Gov. Gavin Newsom could sign a bill on his desk that would make California the first state in the nation to explicitly ban caste discrimination. The governor has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the bill, known as Senate Bill 403.

“We need this bill,” Nirmal Singh, 42, an Indian American doctor from Bakersfield, Calif., told me in a recent interview. Dr. Singh is one of a group of South Asian activists who have been on a hunger strike outside Governor Newsom’s office since early September.

During a reporting trip in the Bay Area last month, I spoke with more than a dozen people who, like Dr. Singh, identify as Dalits, a historically oppressed community who are considered not just lower caste, but outcaste — what used to be called untouchable. Many of them told me about encounters they had with caste-based bigotry in the United States, in the forms of wage theft, housing discrimination, mistreatment in the workplace or social exclusion. They said that explicitly defining caste in state law will give people like them reassurance to come forward with their stories.

But the bill has also met with fierce opposition. Some South Asian Americans say that the proposal unfairly targets Hindus, because the caste system is most commonly associated with Hinduism. They also say that existing laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion and ancestry are sufficient, and they point out that caste discrimination was outlawed in India more than 70 years ago.

Praveen Sinha, a professor of accounting at California State University, Long Beach, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the university system’s addition of caste to its discrimination policy. Mr. Sinha told me that he was concerned that the addition would make South Asians like him more vulnerable to unfair accusations of discrimination.

“I don’t want to be having this sword hanging over my head,” he said.

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 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. The state dropped its case against the two managers at the heart of the Cisco matter earlier this year but is still suing the company.

The lawsuit was initially filed just after the death of George Floyd set off a national conversation about systemic discrimination. Awareness of caste discrimination has grown since then, and several universities and companies have added caste to their discrimination policies.

“The more diverse California becomes, the more diverse our laws have to be, and the further we have to go to protect more people,” Aisha Wahab, a Democratic state senator who introduced the bill, told me in an interview.

Laphonza Butler has been a fixture in California politics for nearly 15 years as a former leader of the state’s largest labor union and an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris.Credit…Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The rest of the news

  • Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List and a former leader of California’s largest labor union, will fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death last week of Dianne Feinstein, Governor Newsom’s office announced on Sunday. Ms. Butler, 44, will serve until voters elect a new senator next year.

  • The governor vetoed legislation that would have allowed workers to collect unemployment pay while on strike.

  • California’s water regulators announced several options for managing the heart of the state’s water supply, CalMatters reports.

Southern California

  • Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the executive director and chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, the striking actors’ union, will be a key player as talks with the movie studios resume today.

  • Los Angeles received its 20th busload of migrants from Texas, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • The state’s new zero-bail policy has taken effect in Los Angeles County, allowing judges to cite and release certain criminal suspects who would have been held on bond before, KTLA reports.

Central California

  • More Central San Joaquin Valley residents plan to sue local and state agencies who they say failed to prevent flooding that devastated their community, The Fresno Bee reports.

  • Creditors claim that more than $500 million is owed to them by Bitwise Industries, a Fresno company in bankruptcy protection, The Fresno Bee reports.

Northern California

  • San Francisco leaders say the city would look very different if Dianne Feinstein had never been elected mayor.

Credit…Bernard Friel/Education Images, via Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Dan Kelly, who lives in San Francisco:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

Our California playlist is ever evolving, based on your recommendations of songs that best represent the Golden State.

You can email me your picks at [email protected]. Please include your full name, the city where you live as well as a few sentences about why your song deserves inclusion.

Satellite images of Southern California show development of more autumn foliage. Credit…NASA MODIS / Maxar Technologies

And before you go, some good news

August showers brought September flowers, and now Southern California is having its greenest and lushest autumn in years, The Los Angeles Times reports.

The region, whose landscape typically dries out in the summer months, had an unusually rainy August this year. Tropical Storm Hilary dropped 2.5 inches of rain on downtown Los Angeles and 1.8 inches in San Diego, claiming the record for the area’s wettest August day.

Though the storm caused damage and flooding, it also had positive environmental effects. New satellite photos from NASA show a verdant Southern California landscape, with abundant greenery visible from the Central Valley to the Los Angeles Basin and along the coast. Scars of wildfires and dried-out terrain that was visible in earlier years’ satellite photos have shrunk significantly in the new images.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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