Ordinance approved by 6-1 vote had support of Dalit activist-led organisations like Equality Labs and others who say caste discrimination is prevalent in diaspora communities.
Seattle has become the first US city to outlaw caste discrimination, after its local council voted to add caste to the city's anti-discrimination laws.
Tuesday's ordinance that was approved by a 6-1 vote addresses an issue important to the area's South Asian diaspora, particularly the Indian and Hindu communities. India's caste system is among the world's oldest forms of rigid social stratification.
"The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression," Kshama Sawant, an Indian American Seattle City Council member, said.
The caste system dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Indian Hindu caste system and have been treated as "untouchables."
"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.
It’s official: our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country ✊ pic.twitter.com/1mBJ1W3v6j— Kshama Sawant (@cmkshama) February 22, 2023
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Even though India has banned untouchability, Dalits still face widespread abuse across the country, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.
Debate over the caste system's hierarchy is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion.
Some people say discrimination is now rare. Indian government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.
Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence should be outlawed. US discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism.
Dalit activists from Seattle and beyond rallied at Seattle City Hall in support of the ordinance, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of California-based Equality Labs.
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.
The suffering of those who are at the bottom of the caste pyramid — known as Dalits — has continued.
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Thank you @PramilaJayapal for standing up for justice! We are proud to have you stand strong beside us in our fight for dignity and equality for all! https://t.co/TP2inbwXIw— Equality Labs (@EqualityLabs) February 22, 2023
Caste in nondiscrimination policy
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.
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 had the support of Dalit activist-led organisations 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 the ordinance came 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.
READ MORE: How the caste system impacts lives of South Asians in the UK