Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination, what does this mean?


SEATLE: Seattle has now become the first city in the US to ban caste discrimination, following the city council’s decision to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. The move comes after vocal demands from the South Asian diaspora communities to outlaw discrimination based on caste.

However, some privileged caste Hindu Americans are pushing back against the movement, protesting that such legislation unfairly ‘maligns their community’. The ordinance, received overwhelming support and was passed with a 6-1 vote, is a victory for the progressive sections among the diaspora contested only by the more privileged Hindus.

Activists on both sides of the issue divide turned up to speak at the City Council meeting, but public comment was restricted. Council Member Kshama Sawant, the only Indian-American on the City Council, said the ordinance does not single out one community, but it recognises how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.

“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries. It is faced by South Asian American and other immigrant working people in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country,” Sawant said when her office introduced the proposal to ban caste-based discrimination in Seattle.

A wider coalition of Indian-American civil rights organizations, on February 22, commended the Seattle City Council for its leadership in passing the historic legislation to ban caste-based discrimination in the city. 

The legislation was introduced by Council member Kshama Sawant (District 3, Central Seattle) and thereafter it was passed on February 21, Tuesday, with a 6-1 vote. The new law clearly prohibits, “businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages.” 

Significantly, the new law also bans discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. It will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.

According to a news release by the Seattle City Council, “the legislation banning caste-based discrimination will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages. It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.”

Basically, the legislation will recognise caste as a unique, basis of discrimination (of origin in South Asia that has travelled with its diaspora), similar to race or gender. Currently, caste “is not an explicitly protected class”, an article by Seattle-based Real Change News reported. Quoting a spokesperson from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, the article said that currently, “if our office were to receive a complaint based solely on caste discrimination, we would not be able to investigate it”.

What does this actually mean?

First of all, this move has set a precedent for other cities also adopting such laws in the future. As Kshama Sawant’s tweet indicates, Seattle is likely to be just the first city in the US to recognise and ban caste-based discrimination. A similar trend has been observed in college campuses across the US. Caste discrimination has no place in society anywhere in the world, including here in America.

That is why some colleges and universities have banned it on campuses, and workers are fighting for their rights and their dignity in cases involving caste discrimination. 

— Pramila Jayapal (@PramilaJayapal) February 21, 2023

Close to four years back, in December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US college to include caste in its non-discrimination policy. However, since then, the California State University System, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. In 2021, Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers as part of its contract with its graduate student union.

Significantly, however, this move has also polarised the Indian-American population. Tensions within the community were visible at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday, reported Associated Press-AP. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of advocacy group Equality Labs, whose work was central to this resolution being passed, called the council vote “a culture war that has been won.”

What was the basis of the opposition to the resolution?

The principle opposition to the resolution has come from “Hindu organisations” across the US who see this move as something that could lead to further “anti-Hindu discrimination”. The lone dissenter, Council Member Sara Nelson, echoed some of these concerns. She said, “this (legislation) could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians”.

Managing Director of the HAF (Hindu American Foundation reportedly with close links to the Indian far right), Samir Kalra, went one step further, saying, “When Seattle should be protecting the civil rights of all its residents, it is actually violating them by running roughshod over the most basic and fundamental rights in US law, all people being treated equally.”

However, this claim has been disputed by various parties, including the council members who participated in the vote. “That’s like saying gender discrimination laws single out all men,” said Council Member Lisa Herboldm, arguing that caste discrimination should be recognised even if it is experienced by “just a small population”.

Another criticism of the move has been regarding the research done before the law was passed. Shobha Swamy, a representative of the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), said that “Due diligence wasn’t done”, also reported AP.

There was intense lobbying in pursuit of the law being passed, however.

#Breaking: More than 100 South Asian organizations, businesses – including Dalit Bahujan groups, temples, cultural associations, and allies – urge @SeattleCouncil to vote NO on @cmkshama‘s proposed caste ordinance.

— CoHNA (Coalition of Hindus of North America) (@CoHNAOfficial) February 21, 2023

CoHNA, which claims to want to “dissolve ‘caste’ consciousness, the colonial trope that has dominated discussions on Hinduism and India”, reportedly collected over 100 signatures opposing the move, including from Dalit Bahujan-led organisations in the US and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

How did the movement for this law grow?

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, reports AP. If one looks at the population of migrants from all of South Asia, the number stands at well over 5 million.

According to a 2016 survey by Equality Labs, the findings of which are strongly contested by organisations like HAF and CoHNA, “All of the inequalities associated with Caste status have become embedded in all of the major South Asian American institutions and they extend into mainstream American institutions which have significant South Asian immigrant populations.” Among other things, the survey found that two out of three Dalits reported being treated unfairly in their workplace and one in three Dalits reported discrimination during their education.

Since 2020, caste has made it to the public consciousness of America for multiple reasons.

It began in July 2020. California regulators sued tech giant Cisco Systems Inc, accusing the company of discriminating against an Indian-American employee and allowing caste-based harassment. This incident was among the first major reported instances of caste discrimination in the supposedly progressive environs of Silicon Valley and made headlines across the US.

Second, in the same year, journalist Isabel Wilkerson published a widely acclaimed book, called Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. In this bestselling book during the dog days of the pandemic, Wilkerson discussed various axes of discrimination and tried to find common bases for them. Her discussion on caste using the language of race and vice versa introduced many Americans to the otherwise foreign concept of caste.

Accusations of discrimination were not limited to corporate bodies however as this example from 2021 shows: the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) faced serious accusations of human trafikking and wage law violations while the construction of the Swaminarayan Temple in New Jersey was underway: authorities alleged that BAPS had trafficked in Dalit workers for the temple’s construction.

Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) has welcomed the Seattle law.

 Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit rights activist and the executive director of Equality Labs said: “Love has won over hate as Seattle has become the first in the nation to ban caste discrimination. We have braved rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry. Thank you to the 200 organizations who stood with us! Thank you to the 30 caste-oppressed civil rights organizations who spoke truth to power! Thank you all who called in, and thank you council woman Sawant and SeattleCouncil for standing on the right side of history! We are United as a south Asian American community in our commitment to heal from caste. First Seattle, now the nation!” 

Prashant Nema, a member of the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans (CSIA) said: “The passage of this legislation is a watershed moment for the South Asian community in Seattle and a significant step towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination in the US. It will help in creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all.” 

Karthikeyan Shanmugam, Secretary Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) said: “The oppressed have a fear of their caste identity being outed by members of the dominant caste, and this typically leads to social exclusion and/or retaliation. This fear, especially of retaliation, is deeply embedded in the psyche of the oppressed. It is a spectre that casts a dark shadow on their dreams and dampens their hopes. This ordinance will help the oppressed unshackle their dreams, unleash their talents and live up to their full potential. The whole world stands to benefit from this blossoming of talent previously stifled.” 

Anil Wagde, a Dalit rights activist and member of Ambedkar International Center (AIC) said: “This historic decision will have far-reaching implications for the oppressed castes in the States and everywhere that the evils of caste have spread. We will continue to work to add caste as a protected category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we prepare for the work ahead, let us take this moment to celebrate this landmark collective win for caste equity and justice.” 

Hasan Khan, IAMC board member from Seattle said: “This is a historic and significant step towards ensuring equal rights and protections for all individuals, regardless of their caste. Caste discrimination is unacceptable and goes against the fundamental principles of human rights and dignity.” 

Javed Sikander, IAMC Seattle chapter member, said: “This legislation sends a strong message to the Hindu far-right that believes in Hindu supremacy that Seattle is committed to promoting diversity, inclusion, and respect for all communities. We urge other cities and states to follow Seattle’s example and take concrete steps to eradicate caste-based discrimination in their jurisdictions.”  

Maya Kamble of the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) said: “Caste-based discrimination is a deeply entrenched and harmful practice that has no place in our society. The legislation passed with a 6-1 vote in Seattle today is a major milestone in our fight for social justice and human rights. It will not stop until we have a nationwide ban on this inhumane practice.” 

Aneelah Afzali, Executive Director of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s newly launched American Muslim Empowerment Network (MAPS-AMEN) said: “Today, through a powerful movement, we helped push ‘the arc of the moral universe’ toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned, by winning the first – but certainly not the last – ordinance to explicitly ban the evil of caste discrimination. This victory is a win not just for those facing caste oppression in Seattle, but for morality, humanity, and all of us who seek to build a world based on justice for all.”


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