California governor vetoes anti-caste discrimination bill

Governor Gavin Newsom of California vetoed anti-caste discrimination bill SB 403 Saturday amidst an increase in anti-caste discrimination laws and ordinances in the US.

SB 403 would have outlawed discrimination based on “ancestry” and “caste.”  The bill defined ancestry as “lineal descent, heritage, parentage, caste, or any inherited social status,” and caste as “an individual’s perceived position in a system of social stratification on the basis of inherited status.” 

Newsom sent a letter to the California Legislature explaining his veto is the bill, writing:

In California, we believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter who they are, where they come from, who they love, or where they live. That is why California already prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and state law specifies that these civil rights protections shall be liberally construed. Because discrimination based on caste is already prohibited under these existing categories, this bill is unnecessary.

State Senator Aisha Wahab, the bill’s sponsor, has yet to comment on the veto. Shortly after the bill was passed through the California State Assembly, Wahab released a statement on X (formerly known as Twitter), defending the need for the bill, writing, “We are protecting people from a long-standing form of discrimination with SB 403.” Several non-profit organizations also shared their support for the bill prior to it landing on the Governor’s desk, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the California Employment Lawyers Organization and Legal Aid at Work. 

Anti-caste discrimination laws have been on the rise across the United States this year, with Seattle, Washington becoming the first city to pass an ordinance banning caste discrimination in February, quickly followed by Fresno, California in September.

The caste system is a culturally enforced hierarchy, traditionally associated with India, where social class passes through ancestry. The order of the traditional system in India is Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras and Dalits, who are situated at the bottom of the hierarchy. Most scholars believe the system is about 3,000 years old.

India outlawed the system in 1950 when India’s Constitution was ratified. However a 2018 report from Azim Premji University showed that caste discrimination was still prevalent in the workplace with upper caste Hindus being significantly more likely to have secure and consistent employment. The report also analyzed a study where the same resumes were sent out with either traditional Hindu upper-caste names, Hindu Dalit names or Muslim names. Resumes with upper-caste Hindu names solicited significantly more callbacks from employers.