California lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a centuries-old system that assigns social status based on one’s birth.
The first-of-its-kind bill, now headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) desk, adds protection for those of South Asian descent who say they have not received the same fairness in employment and housing opportunities because of caste systems in their communities.
The bill was introduced by state Sen. Aisha Wahab (D), the first Muslim and Afghan-American woman elected to the state legislature.
“This bill is very simple,” Wahab said ahead of the vote, according to CalMatters. “It is to protect all people against caste discrimination, regardless of caste: upper caste, lower caste, it does not matter.”
Since introducing the bill, Wahab has received death threats, Politico reported earlier this month.
Though discrimination based on sex, race and religion is already banned at the state and federal levels, the bill would further outlaw discrimination based on medical conditions, genetic information, sexual orientation, immigration status and ancestry.
While caste systems are found in many countries and faiths, they are often associated with India and Hinduism. In 1948, India banned caste discrimination. For the last several years, South Asians have been pushing for caste protections in the U.S.
In February, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban discrimination based on caste, according to The Associated Press.
Still, while the California bill was approved 31-5 on Tuesday, opponents have argued it will only lead to racial profiling.
Earlier this year, the Hindu American Foundation sent a letter to state lawmakers expressing concern that South Asians could be “forced to answer intrusive questions about or be judged for who they are married to.”
All five lawmakers who voted against the bill on Tuesday were Republicans. They argued discrimination is already banned.
State Sen. Shannon Grove (R) added that the caste system is complex, with no universal definition.
“This is not a bill that protects, but it’s a bill that profiles,” Grove said, according to the AP.
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