Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

Advocates have long argued that pre-existing federal anti-discrimination laws do not extend to caste.

Caste SEattle
People celebrate the passing of an ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws [John Froschauer/AP Photo]

Seattle has become the first city in the United States to explicitly ban discrimination based on caste.

The city council in the capital of Washington state voted on Tuesday night to add caste, a hierarchical social system dating back thousands of years and practised throughout South Asia among people of all religions, to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

Several rights groups supported the measure amid a push for caste discrimination to be explicitly recognised under pre-existing state and federal anti-discrimination laws, as well as several high-profile lawsuits against employers in industries with large workforces from the South Asian diaspora.

Meanwhile, several Hindu American groups have pushed back on the effort, arguing such measures specifically target and malign their community, and could discourage companies from hiring Hindus in influential roles.

Seattle Caste
Aneelah Afzali, director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, speaks in the Seattle City Council chambers [John Froschauer/AP Photo]

City council member Kshama Sawant, who proposed the ordinance, said during Tuesday’s session that the measure does not single out one community, but accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.

“Our movement has won a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle!” she tweeted on Tuesday. “Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, whose advocacy work along with community partners continues to push caste discrimination laws forward, called the council vote “a culture war that has been won”.

A 2016 survey by the group found that one in four Dalits in the US had faced verbal or physical assault and two out of every three said they had faced discrimination at work.

“We got the support of over 200 organisations from Seattle and around the country … It’s a powerful message that Dalit people are not alone,” she said, referring to to the group that falls at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, previously known as the “untouchables”, who have been the subject of discrimination and persecution for decades.

“The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste.”

The Coalition of Hindus of North America, meanwhile, had urged the council not to pass the measure, saying there was not enough research to justify the move.

The group has argued the ordinance “advances nothing but bigotry against the South Asian community by using racist, colonial tropes of ‘caste’. It is also shocking to see the blatant singling out of a minority community based on nothing but unsubstantiated claims based on faulty data from hate groups.”

Seattle Council Member Sara Nelson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, agreed with the vocal minority of opponents at Tuesday’s meeting, calling the ordinance “a reckless, harmful solution to a problem for which we have no data or research”.

“This could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians,” she said. “The community that is being impacted is deeply divided on this issue.”

The issue energised both supporters and opponents, with 300 people requesting to speak virtually or in person before the vote. The council heard about half of those speakers before moving on to deliberations and the vote.

Yogesh Mane, a Seattle resident who grew up as a Dalit in India, broke into tears as he heard the council’s decision.

“I’m emotional because this is the first time such an ordinance has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia,” he told The Associated Press news agency. “It’s a historic moment and a powerful feeling when the law allows us to speak up about things that are wrong.”

Meanwhile, Sanjay Patel, a tech company owner from the Seattle area, told the AP he never felt discriminated against in the US as a member of a lower caste and that the ordinance pained him because it reminded him of a caste identity, which he thought had become obsolete.

“I fear, with this law, businesses will be afraid to hire South Asians,” he said. “It will also affect interpersonal relationships if community members start viewing each other with a caste lens.”

Caste discrimination has been prohibited in India since 1948, a year after the nation’s independence from British rule. However, the bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.

The US is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the US diaspora grew from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021.

The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the US – up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Over the past three years, several US colleges and university systems have moved to explicitly prohibit caste discrimination.

In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. The California State University System, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures.

Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies