California State Senator Aisha Wahab has introduced a bill that claims to outlaw caste-based bias in the United States. However, critics argue that the proposed legislation, Senate Bill 403 (SB 403), is not only unnecessary but also insidious and misleading. If passed, the bill could inhibit the ability of American Hindus to live in the nation without fear of discrimination, reprisal, or worse.
The bill appears to be targeting a problem that does not exist in the United States—although a debunked and illegitimate survey conducted by Equality Labs claims otherwise—and could even create division and promote discrimination by drawing attention to something that many in the American Indian and Hindu communities do not identify with.
SB 403 has faced opposition from hundreds of people, including Rakhi Israni, an attorney, human rights advocate and California resident, who testified before the California Senate Judiciary Committee. She argued that the proposed legislation is “an unconstitutional denial of my community’s rights to fairness and equal protection under the law.” Israni’s point is an important one, as the bill appears to be discriminatory, and there are concerns that it could create confusion and conflict in the legal system.
To better understand the history of caste, one must look no further than the Casta System, which originated in Latin America during the colonial period. The system classified individuals based on their racial and ethnic heritage, with the highest status being given to those of European descent, and the lowest status reserved for those of indigenous and African descent.
Although countries in Latin America gained independence from colonial rule in the 1820s, the social hierarchy created by the Casta System continued to exist. Those of indigenous and African descent remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy, facing discrimination and marginalization in many aspects of life. This same phenomenon persisted in India, during and post colonialism there, which was imposed by British rule.
First and second-generation American Hindus and American Indians are not taught about caste in their households and do not identify as any particular caste. Therefore, the bill is targeting a problem that does not exist in the United States. Many have argued that the bill is not only unnecessary but also unconstitutional—caste is not recognized in U.S. law, and there is no legal framework for addressing caste-based discrimination. If the bill is passed, it could create confusion and conflict in the legal system.
In addition to being unnecessary, the bill actually promotes and develops caste-based bias as it appears to be discriminatory by singling out one particular group—Hindus—for protection and ignoring other forms of discrimination. The proposed legislation will not only inhibit the ability of American Hindus to live in the nation without fear of discrimination, reprisal, or worse, but it also damages their employment prospects due to the liability they will not be seen as having as a result of Wahab’s unnecessary legislation. It remains to be seen whether the bill will become law or if it will face further opposition and scrutiny.
SB 403 has caused quite a stir in the American Hindu community and if it is passed, it will disproportionately target one of America’s most prominent and effective voting blocs which will likely result in a significant backlash for the lawmakers who knowingly introduced this discriminatory bill. Elections are right around the corner. Let the ballot box be the judge.