Not all California innovations are good: stop SB 403

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OPINION – California is known as an innovator. Today this reputation is rooted in technological innovation, but historically California was an innovator in discrimination through laws that targeted particular ethnic groups. And what California did, dozens of other states followed.

The last time our state innovated in this regard was in 1913 with the Alien Law Land Law, which targeted Japanese, but also applied to Chinese, Koreans and South Asians to deny them rights to land.

Fast forward 110 years later, and Senator Aisha Wahab is similarly innovating. Her bill, SB 403, seeks to add ‘caste’ as a stand-alone category under California’s nondiscrimination laws to target South Asians, but also Japanese, Africans, and South Americans to deny them their rights to equal protection and due process.

Under the guise of addressing an exceedingly rare form of intra-community discrimination — one that is already covered by existing bans on ancestry-based discrimination — Senator Wahab has made wild and unsubstantiated claims both in her legislation and in statements to the media and various Senate offices to justify her discriminatory bill.

The claims?

That South Asian Californians in particular are engaging in horrible acts ranging from bias and discrimination to torture, rape, murder, even human trafficking on the basis of caste.

The proof of such heinous actions? None.

Adding insult to injury is that Senator Wahab’s district has a significant number of South Asians and major South Asian institutions. Not one was consulted prior to the introduction of her divisive bill about whether caste discrimination was a problem, whether those alleging such discrimination faced any obstacles in getting justice under existing laws, or what actual challenges the community faces.

The last time our state innovated in this regard was in 1913 with the Alien Law Land Law, which targeted Japanese, but also applied to Chinese, Koreans and South Asians to deny them rights to land.

Instead, Senator Wahab not only ignores them, but demonizes thousands of her own constituents who have reached out to convey their very real fears about the stigma and hate she has unleashed against their children and families, and the devastating impact her proposal promises to have on their basic civil rights and ability to work or go to school without being ethnically profiled.

While we all support advancing civil rights and are opposed to discrimination, SB 403 does the exact opposite. Existing non-discrimination law applies to everyone. Every Californian has a race, an ancestry, a gender identity, an age. Not everyone has a caste: not according to the language of the bill; not according to Senator Wahab’s xenophobic statements; and not according to California education standards. As such, a ‘Yes’ vote to SB 403 is a vote to create a law that singles out and targets a group based on their national origin or ancestry. A ‘Yes’ vote to SB 403 is to deny South Asians of all caste backgrounds and none their right to be treated equally under the law.

To be clear, this is not a “clarification” of the law or an “extra layer” of protection. This turns what equal protection has meant for over 50 years on its head. SB 403 adds a standalone category that has no consensus definition, other than inaccurate stereotypes. It preemptively declares a class of “oppressed” South Asians, leaving anyone who is not deemed or perceived as that to be an “oppressor” South Asian with little chance of a fair investigation given the presumption of guilt. SB 403 also has a nonsensical and deeply problematic definition of caste which suggests that the choices South Asians make in terms of who we marry or are friends with as indicators of caste discrimination. No other race or ethnicity is misjudged or mistreated in this way under nondiscrimination law.

In spite of several senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing concerns on the serious legal ramifications of the bill, they seem to have bowed to the pressure of public perception and politics, and voted to pass it out of Committee. And now it’s been rushed through a Senate floor vote, passing without much discussion.

No one wants to look like they are not against discrimination. We get it. In fact, supporters of this bill have painted us as being “for” discrimination, in spite of us saying over and over again for those opposing SB 403, the question is not whether we deal with caste discrimination, but rather how.

But California lawmakers need to think about the alternative. Failing to show moral courage today, is being responsible for promoting discrimination against all South Asians.

If you believe all Californians regardless of where they came from deserve equal protection and due process, vote ‘No’ on SB 403.

Samir Kalra is the California based Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the nation’s oldest and largest Hindu advocacy, education, and civil rights organization

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