Seattle has made history in the U.S. by banning discrimination based on the ancient Hindu caste system, which activists argue encourages inequality, segregation and exclusion among South Asians.
On Tuesday evening, Seattle became the first American city—and the first in the world outside South Asia—to add caste-based discrimination as a form of outlawed prejudice, joining a list that includes gender, age, race and sexual orientation. Indians are now the third largest group of immigrants in the U.S. with an estimated population of about 2.8 million, and according to U.S. census data, 4.6 million Asian-Americans identify as Indian-origin.
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries,” Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American politician and a member of Seattle’s City Council, said in a statement. “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,” she added.
The legislation bans caste discrimination at work, along with public spaces such as hotels, public transport and restrooms, retail establishments and housing. The move is a part of a larger anti-caste movement outside India, and comes months after several U.S. colleges banned caste discrimination on campus.
The 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system, which assigns unchangeable social status to people as soon as they are born, is deeply rooted in Indian society. In Hindu-majority India, the system is further upheld by Hindu nationalist ideology, and despite a nationwide ban on caste discrimination 70 years ago, discrimination and violence remains rampant.
In 2020, a man from the Dalit community—who are assigned the status of “untouchables” in the caste system—filed a lawsuit against his dominant-caste colleagues at multi-billion dollar tech conglomerate Cisco in Silicon Valley. The case exposed the thriving caste discrimination outside of India, especially at tech companies where many Indians and Indian-Americans are employed.
“For most of us from India, our visas and lives are attached to work spaces, and it’s been very difficult to speak up against caste discrimination,” Indian journalist Yashica Dutt, who lives in the U.S. and is the author of award-winning book “Coming Out As Dalit,” told VICE World News.
Over 40 percent of foreign-born tech workers in Seattle, home to the headquarters of companies like Amazon and Microsoft, are from India. A survey on caste in the U.S. by civil rights organisation Equality Labs found that two out of three Dalits surveyed reported caste bias at work, while 60 percent said they experienced caste-based slurs. A report by Seattle-based non-profit media and advocacy platform Real Change, found that Seattle is home to many caste-privileged South Asians, and casteism is prevalent, albeit underreported, in its thriving technology sector.
“Now companies will have a precedent to address cases of caste bias, which will make the lives of Dalits, lower caste and Adivasi [a term for indigenous tribes in India] people safe,” Dutt said.
But many groups and individuals are opposed to laws banning caste-based discrimination. Last year, when California State University added caste to its list of protected categories, the Hindu American Foundation, a group claiming to represent 2 million Hindu-Americans, called the move racist. Last year, tech giant Google received flak from anti-caste activists for cancelling a talk on Dalit rights after Indian Google employees called it “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu.”
A video from Seattle shortly after Tuesday’s announcement shows people cheering the vote with slogans of “Jai Bheem,” which translates to “victory for Bhim”—referring to the late Indian Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar, who fought for Dalit rights and was India’s first Law and Justice minister. Dutt said she hopes other U.S. cities follow suit.
“The Seattle ordinance is definitely going to have a global impact,” she said. “It’s going to bring caste into mainstream cultural conversations and make it difficult for people—even non-South Asians—to ignore it.”
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