Seattle Becomes First US City to Ban Caste Discrimination

Council passes measure in 6-1 vote
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 20, 2023 1:46 PM CST
Updated Feb 21, 2023 6:40 PM CST
Seattle Could Be First US City to Ban Caste Discrimination
Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to supporters and opponents a of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws rally at Seattle City Hall, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.   (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
UPDATE Feb 21, 2023 6:40 PM CST

Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first US city to specifically ban caste discrimination. Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a division of people based on birth or descent, have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States. Proponents of the ordinance that was approved by a 6-1 vote Tuesday say caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries and that without such laws, those facing caste discrimination in the US will have no protection, the AP reports. Activists on different sides of the issue began arriving in Seattle well ahead of Tuesday's city council meeting. As early as last week, more than 100 people had put in requests to speak before the vote, but the council restricted public comment at the meeting.

Feb 20, 2023 1:46 PM CST

One of Kshama Sawant’s earliest memories of the caste system was hearing her grandfather—a man she "otherwise loved very much"—utter a slur to summon their lower-caste maid. The Seattle City Council member, raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household in India, was 6 when she asked her grandfather why he used that derogatory word when he knew the girl’s name. He responded that his granddaughter "talked too much." Now 50, and an elected official in a city far from India, Sawant has proposed an ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws, the AP reports. If her fellow council members approve it Tuesday, Seattle will become the first city in the United States to specifically outlaw caste discrimination.

In India, the origins of the caste system can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s birth. While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid—formerly called "untouchables" and now known as Dalits, which in Sanskrit means "broken"—has continued. The national debate in the United States around caste has been centered in the South Asian community, causing deep divisions within the diaspora. Dalit activist-led organizations such as Oakland-based Equality Labs, say caste discrimination is prevalent in diaspora communities, surfacing in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education, and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.

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There has been strong pushback to anti-discrimination laws and policies that target caste from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America. But over the past decade, Dalit activism has garnered support from several corners of the diaspora, including from groups like Hindus for Human Rights. Among the most striking findings in a survey of 1,500 South Asians in the US by Equity Lab: 67% of Dalits who responded reported being treated unfairly at their workplace because of their caste and 40% of Dalit students who were surveyed reported facing discrimination in educational institutions compared to only 3% of upper-caste respondents. Also, 40% of Dalit respondents said they felt unwelcome at their place of worship because of their caste. (More caste system stories.)

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