Seattle becomes the first U.S. city to explicitly ban discrimination against an individual’s caste

Seattle has become the first city in the United States to explicitly ban discrimination against an individual’s caste. Seattle is one of the largest hubs for tech companies in the United States, an industry employing large numbers of South Asian immigrants.

Supporters of the ordinance against caste-based discrimination
Supporters of the ordinance against caste-based discrimination before the vote at the Seattle City Council | Kshama Sawant, Twitter

The Seattle City Council approved an ordinance on February 21st that makes Seattle the first city in the United States to explicitly ban discrimination against an individual’s caste.

With 6 votes in favor and one against, the ordinance amends protected classes in the municipal code and adds caste to other legally protected characteristics such as race, religion and gender identity. The ordinance was sponsored by Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American politician elected at the Seattle City Council and member of the Marxist political party Socialist Alternative.

People victims in the city of discrimination in employment, education, and housing based on caste can now seize justice and seek reparation.

Although not as widespread as in India, caste-based discrimination exists in the United States, especially in the workplace. “Caste discrimination is a widespread and increasingly grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias faced by South Asian Americans and other immigrants – not just in other countries, but here in Seattle and across the United States,” a petition circulated by Ms. Sawant in the lead-up to the vote reads.

A 2018 survey of South Asians in the U.S. found that 67% of Dalits, a population once known as the “untouchables” under India’s centuries-old caste system, reported being treated unfairly at their American workplaces.

The State of Washington is home to more than 167,000 people from the South Asian diaspora, or 2 percent of the 7.6 million people living in the State, according to the 2020 U.S. Census data. The South Asian population, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, is the fastest-growing major ethnic group in Seattle.

Seattle is one of the largest hubs for tech companies in the United States, an industry employing large numbers of South Asian immigrants. Google for instance currently has over 4,000 workers in Seattle and over 7,200 workers in the state of Washington.

The U.S.-based Alphabet Workers Union representing over 1,100 workers at Alphabet, the parent company of tech giant Google, shared a note supporting the ordinance to ban caste discrimination in Seattle. The union already denounced in 2022 that “caste-oppressed workers face many barriers throughout the tech industry, including at Alphabet,” after Google canceled a Dalit civil rights activist’s talk, adding that caste is a “system of oppression analogous to racial discrimination.” It already asked Google to add caste as a protected characteristic in its global code of conduct.

In 2016, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues stated that at least 250 million people worldwide still faced “appalling and dehumanizing discrimination based on caste and similar systems of inherited status.”

The term caste refers to a hierarchical social system often based on the notions of purity and pollution, according to the rapporteur, with individuals placed at the lowest rungs of a strict social ladder. The concept of caste system is primarily associated with the South Asian region including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Maldives, and Hinduism which identified four original, or castes, called varnas.

Dalit means “those who have been broken but are resilient.”

But at present caste has broadened its meaning. It may be based on either a religious or a secular background and can be found within diverse religious and ethnic groups in all geographical regions, including within diaspora communities, according to the United Nations.

India prohibits caste-based discrimination although it still remains an important issue in the country.

In 2020, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a state agency charged with enforcing California’s civil rights laws, filed a federal lawsuit against Cisco Systems and two managers for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. It alleged that managers at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters campus, which employs a predominantly South Asian workforce, harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against an engineer because he is Dalit Indian. It was the first time an American institution was being held accountable for caste-based discrimination. Three months later, the DFEH however voluntarily dismissed the entire case.

Despite broad support, the Coalition of Hindus of North America was against the ordinance because it “peddles bigotry and singles out the South Asian community by using racist, colonial tropes of ‘caste’ and ensures that our community is subject to special scrutiny, thus denying our rights to freedom of religion and equal protection.” Other advocacy groups representing the Hindu community of North America such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Vishva Hindu Parishad of America also argued the ordinance singled out the Hindu community.

For Hindus for Human Rights, however, the ordinance is “a victory for all involved in the battle to eliminate caste and other forms of bigotry from our world.” Ms. Sawant tweeted that “our movement has won a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country.”

A few American universities including the California State University System, Colby College, Brown University, and Brandeis University have already added caste as a protected characteristic in their anti-discrimination policies in recent years.

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