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After coming to this country as an undergraduate student in 1964, I made the Bay Area my home for many reasons: a society that rewarded my hard work, a Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and religion, and an abiding belief that every person is equal in the eyes of the law. All of this convinced me to settle and raise three children in Silicon Valley. 

It’s also why I’m shocked that my own state senator, Aisha Wahab, is proposing a law, SB-403, to add “caste” as a category to our state’s civil, education and government codes, endangering the very Constitutional guarantees that brought me here. 

Almost every category under state and federal non-discrimination laws apply to and protect everyone. Everyone has a race, ethnicity or ancestry. Everyone has a color. Everyone has an age. But only South Asians are presumed to have or abide by a “caste.”

Senator Wahab has defined “caste” in her bill as something “strongly associated with South Asia.”  In fact, she mentions South Asia at least three times in her bill, and goes a step further. 

She equates the marriage choices of South Asians as possible indicators of caste discrimination. And attributes a status and presumption of victimhood or “oppressed” to certain South Asians, leaving anyone outside this class with being presumed “oppressors.” 

Senator Wahab also claims, without a shred of evidence, that South Asians like me routinely engage in harassment, caste discrimination and various forms of violence across the tech industry and other sectors. The bill is written as if to license employers to avoid hiring my community!

I may be retired now from my chemical engineering career, but I know that in my nearly 40 plus years working in industry, I respected and rewarded my co-workers who came from all backgrounds, including Indian, for what they brought to the company, not the color of their skin or where or to whom they were born. And because I was also acutely aware of the number of times I faced discrimination and had been overlooked for promotions or better opportunities for people far less qualified but accepted as “more American” than me, I worked even harder to ensure equal access to opportunities.

Regardless of these facts, my state senator has presumed that I not only identify with a caste, but also discriminate on its basis. I am frightened for my children, my nieces and nephews and grandchildren who work in the State of California. They do not know, let alone identify, with a caste. So will the State of California assign them one since Senator Wahab is so  certain that caste identity is present “across the South Asian diaspora”? 

How would caste discrimination be identified to enforce against it? Caste activist allies of Sen. Wahab made that clear: they’ve insisted that our school textbooks teach that discriminating against others is innate to Hinduism. They claim that those who celebrate the festival of Diwali are casteist. They even declare that being vegetarian marks me as an “oppressor!”

As an immigrant and American for some 50 years, I know that prejudice and bias exists in all communities. Senator Wahab likely knows that Afghan Sunnis discriminating against Afghan Hazaras has been reported right here in the East Bay. Mexican Americans of indigenous backgrounds report being discriminated against by their fellow Mexican immigrants of non-indigenous ancestral backgrounds. 

The answer to all of these forms of intra-community discrimination, including the occasional acts of prejudice based on caste in my community, is not to create more and more categories that will single out and target different groups. Instead, we must enforce neutral categories under existing laws like ancestry and educate people about their rights and responsibilities. 

SB-403 is not only insulting, it’s racist. It’s discriminatory. And it’s unlawful.

It is my wish that my adopted country lives up to its highest ideals as a country where all are judged by the content of their character. But SB-403, in scapegoating my fellow South Asians, only ends up furthering the discrimination it hopes to end.

Bhupendra Shah is a retired chemical engineer and a long-time resident of Santa Clara County and Alameda County.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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