Seattle has become the first city in the US to ban caste-based discrimination, after council members voted on Tuesday to add the provision to the city’s anti-bias laws.
Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a division of people based on birth or descent, have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities. Proponents of the ordinance, which was approved by a 6-1 vote, say without such laws, those facing caste discrimination in the US will have no protections.
But the move is also contentious, and has seen opposition from some Hindu Americans who argue that such legislation maligns a community that is already the target of prejudice.
Activists and organizers on different sides of the issue began arriving in Seattle on Monday. As early as last week, more than 100 people had put in requests to speak at the meeting. Early Tuesday, several activists braved cold temperatures and wind gusts to line up outside city hall so they would get a chance to speak to the council before the vote.
Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American on the city council, said her proposed ordinance does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.
The origins of the caste system in India can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s occupation and birth. It is a system that has evolved over the centuries under Muslim and British rule. The suffering of those who are at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits – has continued. Caste discrimination has been prohibited in India since 1948, a year after the nation’s independence from British rule.
Dalit activists from Seattle and beyond planned two rallies at Seattle’s city hall in support of the ordinance, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of California-based Equality Labs.
The US is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute. It 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 colleges and university systems have moved to 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.
The Seattle measure has the support of Dalit activist-led organizations like Equality Labs and others. The groups say caste discrimination is prevalent in diaspora communities manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.
Opposition to this ordinance comes from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America who say it unnecessarily singles out a community already vulnerable to discrimination in the US.