Ian Patrick, FISM News
The city of Seattle set a record on Tuesday by becoming the first United States city to add caste to its already existing anti-discrimination laws.
In a 6-1 vote, the Seattle city council added the ordinance banning caste discrimination. It was originally proposed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Party on January 24th, 2023.
In a statement, Councilmember Sawant said the ordinance was necessary because caste discrimination in the U.S. is “invisible and unaddressed.”
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries,” Sawant writes. “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.
“With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed.”
Sawant said the legislation will prevent businesses, public accommodations, and the housing industry from discriminating based on a person’s caste.
The caste system is generally associated with Hinduism and South Asian cultures.
According to Equity Labs, which did a study on caste in the U.S., the idea behind the system was based on the Hindu belief that people were to be ranked in a hierarchy “according to ritual status, purity, and occupation.” However, according to the education website ThoughtCo, the system soon transitioned to being an inherited part of a person’s life.
The system includes four main categories – “Brahmin, the priests; Kshatriya, warriors and nobility; Vaisya, farmers, traders, and artisans; and Shudra, tenant farmers and servants,” according to ThoughtCo. A fifth group, called the “Dalits” or “untouchables,” was noted to exist outside of the traditional caste system and were considered contaminated.
Under the traditional caste system, the Dalits were segregated and discouraged from interacting with other members of the hierarchy.
Equity Lab writes that the caste system “is enforced by violence and maintained by one of the oldest, most persistent cultures of impunity throughout South Asia, most notably in India, where despite the contemporary illegality of the system, it has persisted and thrived for 2,500 years.”
The 2016 Equity Lab study on caste in the U.S. is one of a limited field of study. It found that 25% of people considered to be in the Dalit group living in the U.S. experienced verbal or physical assault because of their status.
In addition, 2 out of 3 Dalits found unfair treatment in the workplace while 1 out of 3 Dalit students found unfair treatment in their education. Also, 20% of Dalit respondents reported feelings of discrimination at a business because of their caste.
Councilmember Sawant vigorously defended her proposition and even reached out to federal lawmakers like Rep. Ro Khanna and Rep. Pramila Jayapal to throw their support behind it.
In her statement explaining the measure, Sawant likened the caste issues in America and particularly Seattle to a more general “struggle against racial and gender oppression,” citing the Black Lives Matter movement and the Supreme Court repealing of Roe v. Wade.
The only “no” vote for the proposal came from Councilmember Sara Nelson. According to a report from USA Today, Nelson said the proposal was “a reckless, harmful solution to a problem for which we have no data or research.”
“This could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians,” Nelson said, adding that this same community “is deeply divided on this issue.”