What you need to know about Ending Caste Discrimination in California (SB 403)

We need to add caste as a protected class under California state law
May 17, 2023

Since immigrating to the U.S. in 1999, every time database engineer Benjamin Kaila applies for a job, he hopes that there are no other Indians in his interview panel. Why?

Benjamin is a Dalit, a member of the lowest-ranked caste in India’s system of social hierarchy. He says that whenever there has been another Indian person in his in-person interview panel, he almost always receives personal questions that seem to be an attempt to suss out whether he’s a member of one of the upper castes.

He is not the only one to experience caste discrimination both in interviews and in the workplace. In a 2020 Washington Post article on the role of caste in Silicon Valley, Seattle-based Microsoft engineer Raghav Kaushik said, “Just like racism, casteism is alive in America and in the tech sector.” This is why Raghav, who was actually born into a dominant caste, has been involved in caste equity advocacy for years.

Stories like Benjamin’s show that we need real protections against discrimination on the basis of caste, as we have done with race, ethnicity, and gender.

What is caste bias?

Caste is a system of social stratification and exclusion that impacts over 5.7 million South Asian Americans and over 1.9 billion people worldwide. While caste is strongly associated with South Asia, similar systems exist in South America, Japan, parts of Africa, and more often, when people immigrate to the U.S. from cultures where caste is prevalent, these harmful dynamics of exclusion can be replicated here.

Caste hierarchy determines your social status, and caste bias expresses an expectation that people should associate only within their own caste. These expectations can range from marriage, friends, jobs, and occupations. Members of lower castes often report exclusion from higher caste social circles and are denied access to occupations associated with higher castes. 

Caste is also inherited. If your parents, grandparents, and so on are of a particular caste, so are you. Your caste can determine the opportunities you have in the workplace and the proximity to violence and social exclusion you may face.

Ultimately, caste, like race, is a social fiction that exists in communities around the world, backed by pseudo-science and/or religion, created to justify oppression. It’s coded by everything from last names to skin color and facial features. Because of this, caste is already functionally protected under other protected characteristics such as race, religion, national origin, and ancestry as caste is inextricably intertwined with—and is based on—the intersection of other protected identities.

SB 403, though, is declarative of existing law and makes explicit that caste is protected. 

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs, breaks down what caste discrimination is and why we need laws to protect against it:

Why we’re co-sponsoring SB 403, Ending Caste Discrimination in California

Because the caste system encourages people to stay within their own social strata, this can mean that someone’s caste can impact their hiring, education, and housing outcomes. For example, in Silicon Valley, a quarter of technical roles are held by Indian Americans. However, they’re almost exclusively by dominant castes. Lower-caste workers, sometimes referred to as “Dalits” in South Asia, report experiencing casteist slurs, discriminatory hiring and firing, sexual harassment, and aggressive searches for evidence of a closeted Dalit’s caste.

This search for evidence of caste may be difficult for outsiders to discern, but questions about what temple someone attends, the village their family grew up in, or what kind of job their parents hold can all be ways to try to narrow in on which caste someone belongs to. According to a Wired article, Trapped in Silicon Valley’s Hidden Caste System, “A pat on the shoulder might be a friendly greeting—or a search for a sacred thread that some dominant-caste Hindu men wear beneath their shirts.”

The consequence of being “found out” as one caste or another can lead to career immobility, harassment in the workplace, exclusion from opportunity, or preferential treatment if you are from the “right” caste.

We need to be declarative and explicit that caste is a protective class, as shown in a recent case that the California Department of Civil Rights brought against Cisco for alleged caste discrimination against an employee. To avoid accountability, Cisco filed a demurrer and a motion-to-strike petition to dismiss the case because Cisco is alleging that caste and ethnicity are not protected classes under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. 

Within 3 weeks of the Cisco case becoming public, over 260 tech workers reported experiencing caste-based discrimination in the workplace. 

What would SB 403 do?

Ending Caste Discrimination in California (SB 403) clarifies existing anti-discrimination protections for caste-oppressed Californians by adding caste as a characteristic to the following laws:

  • Unruh Civil Rights Act, which would provide caste-oppressed people with protection from discrimination in all business establishments in California, including housing and public accommodations
  • Fair Employment and Housing Act, which would bar discriminatory employment and housing practices against caste-oppressed people—whether it’s purposefully targeting them in a predatory manner from advertisements or excluding them from job and housing applications
  • Education Code, which would protect the equal rights and opportunities for caste-oppressed students in elementary, secondary, post-secondary, and general education, such as the opportunity to attend state-funded after-school programs

SB 403 ensures people experiencing caste discrimination understand they may exercise the protections and civil rights afforded to them under the law. SB 403 has already passed the state Senate, making it one step closer to law.

How can I stay updated about SB 403?

We can’t continue to let people like Benjamin be discriminated against based on their caste. We’re working with grassroots organizations to ensure that all workers get the protections they need—sign up to learn more!


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  • Alphabet Workers Union (Sponsor)
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  • APALA Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO (Sponsor)
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