South Asians Are Divided Over a Pending Ban on Caste Discrimination

South Asians Are Divided Over a Pending Ban on Caste | ltc-a

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.

Caste.

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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.


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

“I’m just back from camping with my grandchildren at Lava Beds National Monument, in far Northern California. This park, on the edge of the Medicine Lake Volcano, has scores of lava tube caves to explore, ranging in difficulty from easy walks to full-on spelunker adventures. Each cave provides access to a subterranean world that is unknown to most of us and each has unique features of surprising variety. The park provides guidance and lanterns at the main visitor center.

This region was the Modoc homeland for thousands of years and besides ample interpretive signage, the park includes an amazing, petroglyph-covered cliff, along the former south shore of Tule Lake.

Outside of the caves, the rugged lava fields were the location of one of the last Indian Wars and so there are battle sites and historical markers, which provide background about Modoc history and culture, as well as unvarnished accounts of the conflict.

Finally, the Tule Lake Internment Camp, which held up to 15,000 Japanese American prisoners during World War II, was located here, and an interpretive center provides thoughtful reflection on that episode.

This has been among our family’s favorite destinations for almost 50 years, and unlike other, better known parks in California, it is never crowded and reservations are not needed. Other nearby sites that can be combined with a trip to Lava beds include the adjacent Klamath wetlands, which host huge seasonal flocks of migratory birds and the three stratovolcanoes: Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen and Crater Lake, marking the southern end of the West Coast chain of active volcanoes. Each is within a few hours’ drive, and each provides a different view of the dynamic geology of this very special region.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


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 CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your full name, the city where you live as well as a few sentences about why your song deserves inclusion.


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 CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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