Fresno in California became only the second US city to ban caste discrimination after a unanimous city council vote that added caste and indigeneity as two new protected categories into its municipal code.
A movement against caste discrimination has picked up some momentum in recent months in North America. Earlier this year, Seattle became the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination after a city council vote and Toronto’s school board became the first in Canada to recognise that caste discrimination existed in the city’s schools.
American activists opposing caste discrimination aim to fight against the practice throughout the US.
A bill in California aimed at banning caste discrimination in the entire state was passed by the state Assembly in late August and by the state Senate in early September with a near unanimous vote. It is now at the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom.
If signed into law, it would make California the first US state to ban caste discrimination.
The caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification. It dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges for upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is at the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system and its members have been treated as “untouchables”.
India outlawed caste discrimination over 70 years ago, yet several studies in recent years showed that bias persists. One study found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Dalits still face widespread abuse across India, where their attempts at upward social mobility have, at times, been violently put down.
Debate over the caste system is contentious and intertwined with religion.
Activists opposing caste discrimination said it was no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence, should be outlawed.
Opponents of such a step in the US said that since the country’s laws already banned ancestry discrimination, an action of this type would be meaningless and only serve to stigmatise the entire community — mostly Hindus and South Asians — with a broad brush.