- The ordinance comes as several caste equity leaders have been on a hunger strike for the past three weeks to push Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the state’s historic anti-caste discrimination bill, SB403, before his deadline of Oct. 14.
Fresno, California, became the second city to ban caste discrimination after its council unanimously voted 7-0 in favor of adding caste as a protected category in its anti-discrimination policy. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination after a city council vote. The state bill was passed in the legislature in early September and has sparked intense support, as well as opposition from those who say it singles out Hindu Americans as potential perpetrators of discrimination.
The push for the ban was led by Sikh residents, and was joined by Indigenous people like Oaxacans, “as discrimination against those with ties to the southern Mexican state gained widespread attention with the leak of a recording that captured three Los Angeles City Council members and a labor leader in a racist conversation,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
Tens of thousands of Sikhs and Oaxacans, “many of them farmers or farmworkers, live in Fresno County and the Central Valley,” the LAT Times noted, adding that the two communities have worked together for years.
“These proposals in Fresno are trying to say we have an opportunity to address … this historical legacy of discrimination against untouchables and against Indigenous people,” Oaxacan American Gaspar Rivera-Salgado told LA Times. He is the director of the Center for Mexican Studies at UCLA, as well as a board member at the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, which was among the groups advocating for the Fresno ordinance.
In a press release, Fresno City Council Vice President Annalisa Perea said she is proud of the Californian city for “raising the bar on civil rights protection.” Acknowledging that “discrimination won’t end overnight,” she noted how Fresno “took bold action by passing this anti-discrimination policy to strengthen civil rights protections against caste discrimination.”
Supporters say “the progressive ordinance sets a powerful precedent” as California’s historic anti-caste discrimination bill, SB403, awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. If signed, this bill will establish California as the first state in the nation to officially prohibit discrimination based on caste. Several caste equity leaders, including Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, have been on a hunger strike for three weeks to push Newsom to sign Senate Bill 403 before his deadline of Oct. 14. The bill cleared both houses of the state Legislature earlier this month. “The world is now watching to see if California will stand again with those who have suffered or will cave to special interests that would deny us our dignity,” Soundararajan wrote in a blog on Religion New Service. “We urge our governor, with deep respect, to sign SB 403 without delay and free California from caste.”
She was among caste equity leaders who spoke at a news conference on Jan. 28, after the City Council vote, along with leaders of the Jakara Movement and the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities. When we think about things like the caste system, things that led to genocide, things that led to the othering of Indigenous people, we see ourselves in their struggle as caste-oppressed people,” Soundararajan said, “because we, too, have been oppressed for centuries.
Amar Daroch, president of Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha in Fresno, California said “its is an honor and a dream to have brought freedom for so many peoples in Fresno with this historic win. There are so many of us who are survivors of global caste systems. From Oaxqueno brothers and sisters to my own Guru Ravidass community, we are thrilled to break the shackles of caste.”
In the past few years, the Golden State has seen high-profile cases of caste discrimination across many industries, including technology, education, construction, restaurants, domestic work, as well as medical and legal fields. The Cisco lawsuit, and the resignation of Tanuja Gupta, a project manager at Google News, which happened in SB403 author California State Senator Aisha Wahab’s district, “have shined a light on the pervasiveness of caste discrimination in California,” according to Equality Labs. Last April, to mark Dalit History Month, Gupta invited activist Soundararajan. The Google News diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) talk was eventually canceled because of “disinformation” about Soundararajan and the organization she led, resulting in Gupta’s resignation.
In June 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a federal lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, against Cisco Systems, Inc. (Cisco) and two managers for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The lawsuit alleged that managers at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian. Earlier in April, the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed the case against supervisors Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella,
This September, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed an amended complaint against the California Civil Rights Department alleging that the department has violated the rights of Hindus in California by wrongly asserting that a caste system and caste-based discrimination are integral parts of Hindu teachings and practices. Three individual plaintiffs, all Indian-origin Hindu tech workers, who claim direct harm by the CRD’s “unconstitutional and inaccurate” statements about Hinduism and Indians have also joined the suit, according to a media statement.
Last January, California State University (CSU) became the first university system in the U.S. to add caste to its anti-discrimination policy. The genesis of the CSU’s decision began in March 2021, when a student body at California Polytechnic demanded that it and the CSU include the Indian caste system in their anti-discriminatory policy. The demand was made in a resolution adopted on March 3 by Associated Students, Inc., the student body of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
A month later, later, Alphabet Workers Union demanded that caste be included in the company’s anti-discrimination policy and be integrated into their equity practices. The employees union of the parent company of Google and several subsidiaries put their demands forward in a statement supporting the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Cisco for caste-based discrimination.