Why is California caste discrimination bill causing such a ruckus?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La June 8, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

Why is California caste discrimination bill causing such a ruckus?

Other than a contentious debate in one of the largest public hearing turnouts for any bill before the Legislature this session, the proposal by Sen. Aisha Wahab to ban caste discrimination sailed through the Senate with relative ease (and a 34-1 vote). 

But the first-term Democrat from Fremont and her bill will still face a big battle, as opponents marshal their forces in the Assembly.

As CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal and Jeanne Kuang from CalMatters’ California Divide team explain, caste is a centuries-old class system in South Asia that is determined by birth. Dalits or “untouchables” are in the lowest rung, while Brahmins are in the highest.

The issue has grown more notable in California as more South Asians immigrate into the state: California has nearly 1 million self-identified South Asians, and there’s a concentration in Silicon Valley, where caste issues have surfaced at tech firms.

Wahab’s bill would include caste as a protected class to the state Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the state policy that bans discrimination in public schools. In the workplace, people in lower castes say that they receive less pay and fewer promotions from those in higher castes.

But opponents of the bill argue that the law would be redundant and exclusionary in itself: Ancestry is already protected and adding caste could single out the South Asian community. 

  • Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation: “Creating an entire separate category and law that only applies to minority communities is inconsistent with our constitutional norms.”

Though Wahab herself is not South Asian (she is Afghan-American), her district has many South Asian residents. Because of the measure, she has received threats and is facing a recall campaign

The only two South Asians in the Legislature — Democratic Assemblymembers Ash Kalra from San Jose and Jasmeet Bains from Bakersfield — have remained relatively mum about the matter. Bains, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, did not respond to CalMatters’ requests for an interview. 

Proponents of the bill, such as Naindeep Singh, the executive director of Jakara Movement, say it’s needed because “casteism is still practiced,” even in the U.S., and those who believe it will lead to further discrimination are saying so in bad faith.

  • Singh: “The argument that the bill singles out South Asian communities is a canard. It is rather simple: If you don’t discriminate against others based on caste, you have little to fear with SB 403’s passage.”

Police shootings panel: The next CalMatters event is June 13 and focuses on Attorney General Rob Bonta’s investigations into police killings of unarmed civilians. “Fatal Shootings: California’s Bid to Police Its Police” will be moderated by CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara, who has been tracking these cases. Sign up here to attend in-person or virtually.

Fresno housing: A CalMatters live event, in partnership with Fresnoland, will focus on housing affordability in Fresno. It is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. on June 15, in person at the Fresno Art Museum and virtually. Sign up here to attend.


1 State workers want bigger paychecks

The state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Wednesday, July 6, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
The state Capitol in Sacramento on July 6, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

California teachers and nurses have walked the picket lines. Late last year, University of California graduate students staged the largest strike in U.S higher education history. Hollywood writers are striking, and actors could soon join them.

Could thousands of state workers be next? 

Today, California’s biggest union for state employees will march to the Governor’s Mansion to rally support for higher wages. The event takes place as the contracts of 14 of the state’s 21 bargaining units are set to expire by the first week of July — impacting as many as 147,000 state workers.

As the union for nine of these bargaining units, SEIU Local 1000 represents 100,000 state workers and has more than 55,000 dues-paying members. With more than 69% of state workers unable to support themselves and one additional child on their own, according to a recent study, the union is seeking a general 30% salary increase, as well as investments to increase staffing.

  • Brian Nash, communications director of SEIU 1000: “Too often this is a story of state workers bemoaning that they don’t get paid enough. That’s not really the story…. These contracts are a great opportunity to solve some of the problems that are facing us — with wildfires, drought and other big issues that we hear about on a daily basis.”

In 2020 during the COVID shutdowns, furloughs decreased state worker pay by about 9%. Newsom earmarked more than $487 million to boost pay for public employees in his initial spending proposal, then added $22.2 million in his May plan. 

But advocating for more pay as California faces a $31.5 billion shortfall will be a tough sell. If negotiations fall apart, SEIU can then vote to strike. (In 2016, it voted to consider a strike, but ultimately did not walk out.) 

It’s a strategy some unions may already be anticipating. One state union that represents prison and state hospital doctors urged members last week to “prepare for work actions that will demonstrate to lawmakers we are serious about parity with contractors” as its contract expires in July.

Camille Travis, the deputy director of communications at the state’s Department of Human Resources, told CalMatters that it does not comment on ongoing negotiations.

And remember: Amid these negotiations, there is a possibility that state workers will create one more union to represent its legislative staff. A bill to unionize staffers by Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood, recently passed the Assembly and is before the Senate.

2 Coastal panel pours cold water on housing

Constructipn near 7th Street and Broadway in Santa Monica on May 24, 2023. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters
Construction near 7th Street and Broadway in Santa Monica on May 24, 2023. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for CalMatters

From CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher:

The most controversial housing bill of the year received a unanimous thumbs-down Wednesday from one of California’s largest land regulators.

All 12 members of the California Coastal Commission voted to oppose a bill by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener that would extend a state law to fast-track the permitting of apartments and multiplexes in many parts of the state, so long as at least 10% of the units are set aside for lower-income residents.

Current law carves out an exemption for California’s 800-mile-plus Coastal Zone. The new bill would strip out the exemption.

That’s much to the chagrin of the commission, the independent agency tasked with overseeing what gets built, torn down, dug up or fenced off within that zone. At its monthly meeting, members took issue with different parts of the legislation.

  • Fast-tracked permitting doesn’t allow for enough review, said Commissioner Dayna Bochco: “We take a lot of time and effort in evaluating each and every project that comes before us.”
  • The bill doesn’t prioritize affordable housing enough, said staffer Sean Drake: “The result will be luxury high-rise, ocean-view developments for predominantly wealthy buyers…. This is not the housing that California needs.”

Spanning anywhere from 500 yards to five miles from the water’s edge, the total size of the Coastal Zone is roughly the size of Rhode Island and includes portions of downtown San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Humboldt — and the entirety of development-averse Coronado.

Asked about the decision to pull the coastal exemption from the bill earlier this year, Wiener called the carve-out “elitist.” 

  • Wiener: “It means we’re excluding many of the wealthiest communities in California.”

More housing news: A bill that would enshrine housing as a fundamental human right in the state constitution passed its first committee Wednesday, but it still has a long way to go, according to CalMatters reporter Marisa Kendall.

Assemblymember Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat and author of ACA 10, says the measure would hold state and local officials accountable to make progress on California’s homelessness crisis.

  • Haney, at a rally before the hearing: “A fundamental right to housing is a game changer. It’s a game changer because every decision that’s made here, every decision that’s made by a local government, by a city or county, should be in the context of Californians recognizing that this is a right that we have enshrined.”

But the bill is vague, and doesn’t clarify what a right to housing means in a state that lacks the resources to house everyone. And it doesn’t specify how such a right would be enforced, which gave some legislators pause, including Assemblymember Joe Patterson, a Granite Bay Republican who voted against the measure.

  • Patterson: “What concerns me overall is that the language, it doesn’t really say anything.”

The bill made it out of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee with a 6-2 vote. But even if it makes it through the Legislature, voters still have to approve it next year. 


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California gets another reminder of the millions of residents mired in poverty.

Los Angeles-area governments declared a state of emergency on homelessness to spur action, but there are drawbacks to an “emergency,” write Peter Laugharn, CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Miguel A. Santana, CEO of the Weingart Foundation.


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