Dalits are winning against caste discrimination in the US, too
A Seattle City Council resolution against caste discrimination is an important step in this journey.
[Update: The Seattle City Council on February 21, 2023, passed the first local legislation in the United States adding caste to anti-discrimination laws.]
On Tuesday, February 21, the Seattle City Council will make history if it votes yes to include caste in the city’s non-discrimination policies. Outlawing caste discrimination would be the culmination of years of Dalit feminist research and organising that has exposed caste oppression in the United States and has centred Dalit healing in the battle to end caste discrimination everywhere.
Caste is a hierarchical social system dating back thousands of years and practised throughout South Asia among people of all religions. It negatively affects more than 1.9 billion people worldwide and at least 5.7 million South Asian Americans, degrading their quality of life.
It determines who can worship where, education and career opportunities, and even personal relationships — in essence, caste shapes entire lives. While caste-based discrimination in the US is not as widespread and overt as in India, where it has its roots, it exists here, too.
South Asian immigrants from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Maldives, and indentured communities all report experiencing caste discrimination in the US. The Equality Labs 2016 Caste in the United States survey 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.
This data is further supported by a forthcoming report from the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and Equality Labs, with the preliminary analysis of a new survey revealing that within US higher education, four in five caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty reported experiencing caste discrimination at the hands of their dominant-caste peers.
Further, three in four caste-oppressed stakeholders did not report that discrimination in their universities or colleges because caste was not added as a protected category, or because their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments lacked the competency to address their concerns.
This data is backed by troubling testimonies of caste discrimination in workplaces, schools, places of worship and businesses.
It can no longer be denied: caste discrimination exists in the US and must be fought with civil rights enforcement.
This movement is succeeding in part because caste-oppressed people in the US do not stand alone. Dalit feminist leaders have a long history of forging collaborations around the world, advancing a vision of Dalit internationalism rooted in collective liberation. This has led to thousands of individuals and 150 organisations who have written in from across Seattle and the nation expressing their enthusiastic support for banning caste discrimination.
At a time when polarisation in the South Asian American community runs high, this solidarity offers a remarkable counter-vision of unity to those who would divide us with bigotry and religious ethnonationalism.
Our caste equity coalition is driven by powerful interfaith and inter-caste organisations. These include Equality Labs, the Ambedkar Association of North America, the Coalition of Seattle Indians, the Indian American Muslim Council, the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and South Asians for Black Lives, among others.
Also central to this coalition is a network of more than 30 anti-caste Ambedkarite organisations. Among them are the Ambedkar King Study Circle, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas and Boston Study Group. Many caste equity civil rights groups often name themselves Ambedkarites after the Dalit civil rights leader Dr B R Ambedkar, who was the architect of the Indian constitution and a champion of the caste-oppressed.
The North American network of Shri Guru Ravidassia centres [Guru Ravidas was a social reformer who campaigned against caste] and Sikh gurdwaras around the country have also joined our work.
Legal and caste scholars like Kevin Brown, Ann Ravel and Shailaja Paik, as well as groups like the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective and Amnesty International, have written in support of this work. Even the South Asian Bar Association of North America, the voice of the South Asian legal community, has thrown its support behind the ordinance. Longtime civil and human rights leaders like Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy also have written impassioned letters to the council. West’s letter urges members to “learn the lesson from our shameful history of anti-Blackness” in the US.
Our path to power
The road to this Seattle ordinance was laid by a years-long collaboration among groups like API Chaya, Equality Labs, Ambedkar Association of North America and many grassroots organisations in the city.
It started in 2015, when we began engaging in Black and Brown solidarity work with the #Dalitwomenfight tour. The tour was centred on Dalit women, gender non-conforming and trans leaders speaking out against caste-based sexual violence from the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch. It was a platform to build solidarity with leaders from Black Lives Matter, worker unions, University of Washington faculty and students, as well as racial and gender justice groups in the city.
This work then spawned an initiative to support caste-oppressed survivors in the city. Among our achievements was the first congressional briefing on caste discrimination with Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) in 2019.
We have also spent years conducting workshops to help our community begin the repair and reconciliation needed after centuries of caste violence. Thousands of South Asians have attended these workshops and learned to confront caste in our communities while committing to healing from caste violence.
Meanwhile, groups like the Coalition for Indian Americans of Seattle have mobilised support against rising ethnonationalism in India — from a Seattle resolution against India’s Islamophobic new citizenship rules to hosting information sessions about caste.
They have now spearheaded this current campaign with the office of councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who introduced this legislation against caste discrimination.
The future of the caste equity movement
A growing democratic consensus in American social justice movements recognises caste as a worker, feminist, queer and civil rights issue. Caste discrimination must be addressed through changes in civil rights law as well as professional training — and changes within the broader culture.
Dalit workers face systemic discrimination, including bullying and harassment, casteist slurs, demotion and termination. Wherever South Asians are, caste is too, whether in white or blue-collar jobs — from computer engineers to restaurant and hotel workers, doctors to domestic workers, and lawyers to nannies. No profession is untouched by casteism.
Labour organisations realise that caste is a workers’ rights issue. That’s why unions and workers’ collectives — from the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and Alphabet Workers Union to the recently formed Tech Workers Collective for Caste Equity — have joined us.
Caste is also an issue of gender-based violence. Priya Meena, a member of the Seattle based South Asians Building Accountability and Healing group, is among the women who have helped explain how caste discrimination affects South Asian survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Dominant caste partners maintain power and control in relationships using coercion, threats, and emotional and physical abuse, all while weaponising caste identity to create a dangerous environment for survivors. Feminist organisations like Ultraviolet and South Asian Soar, representing thousands of gender justice advocates around the country, have also offered their support for the ordinance in Seattle.
Caste is a queer issue too: many Dalit queer, non-binary and trans people are leading this conversation within the larger queer community about how to challenge the casteism of their dominant caste peers. At a time when so many queer folks are facing harmful attacks and laws penalising gender-affirming care, we need to centre Dalit queers in the battle for caste equity as part of the larger struggle for queer liberation.
Additionally, caste has become a rallying point for all those promoting religious freedom and protecting survivors of religious abuse. Caste-oppressed people are found in all faiths; all suffer extreme discrimination from their dominant caste colleagues. Interfaith organisations and spiritual leaders are thus aligning with Dalit people on this issue.
In many ways, regardless of what the Seattle City Council decides, Dalits have already won the cultural wars around this issue.
And our demands are clear. We want our civil rights and an end to caste discrimination immediately. The South Asian diaspora around the world is part of a global reckoning around caste, and we are eager to set the stage for healing. We hope that Seattle opens the door for every city and nation to add caste to their non-discrimination policies.
For the work of repair and reconciliation begins with accountability and changing policies to ensure safer workplaces for all. We reject the bigots who would imprison us all within a world of polarisation, violence, and endless suffering. Instead, we choose love, and we choose a united community released from our historical trauma of caste.
This ordinance is one step in that journey. Let us heal. Let us choose freedom.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.