Seattle becomes the first city to ban caste discrimination
In a historic vote, the Seattle City Council voted to ban caste discrimination on Tuesday. The vote was six in favor and one opposed with two councilmembers absent.
Seattle is the first city in the country to have such a law in place. The new legislation will add caste to the list of protected classes, such as race, age and religion.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced the proposal last month after hearing from tech workers and others in the region about the discrimination they had experienced as a member of an oppressed caste.
The bill now heads to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell for review. He can choose to sign, veto or allow it to become law without his signature. In the case of a veto, six councilmembers can override the veto.
KNKX spoke to one software engineer who works in Seattle on a H-1B visa. He said his manager discriminated against him after finding out he was a Dalit, formerly known as an “untouchable," the lowest stratum of castes in India.
The 39-year-old immigrant from India, who asked to remain anonymous because of possible repercussions at work, said he felt troubled as soon as he heard the question “Do you eat meat?” from his Indian manager.
“That question just triggered me immediately,” the tech worker said. “I know the pattern.”
By admitting to eating meat, the tech worker had exposed himself as a member of an oppressed caste, or a Dalit, in the social hierarchy that is pervasive in South Asian countries. A person’s diet can be an indication of where someone stands in the caste system because those higher in the hierarchy, such as Brahmins, are often vegetarian.
Soon after, the tech worker said his manager started micromanaging him, stopped sending important projects his way, and denied him sufficient leave – even for his brother’s wedding.
“I know how to do my job. I’m very good at it. It’s always subtle,” the tech worker said about the discrimination he has faced at more than one job because of his caste.
Sawant said she hopes other cities will soon pass similar laws.
“If we are able to win this in Seattle, there’s no doubt…that it’ll inspire working people and our immigrant community members in many other cities to fight for and win similar legislation,” Sawant said at a January press conference announcing the proposal. “And on top of that it will help inspire movements within India.”
There’s been an outpouring of reaction from the region to Sawant’s bill. The Seattle City Council has received hundreds of emails and at a recent city council meeting, dozens of people —the vast majority in support of the proposal —called to speak out about caste discrimination.
On the day of the vote, both supporters and opponents appeared at City Hall with signs while hundreds of people signed up for public comment.
“The world is watching, council members. Please be on the right side of history,” said one person who called in ahead of the vote, urging council members to vote in favor of the legislation.
Another caller spoke about how some people in dominant castes are unwilling to eat with those from oppressed castes.
Some members of South Asian communities say the problem of caste oppression in the U.S. has grown as more and more tech workers from India and other countries have come to the country for opportunities. Many say those from lower castes, especially Dalits, are forced to hide who they are. Although caste-based discrimination is illegal in India and other South Asian countries, the caste system remains prevalent.
Across the nation, some colleges and universities have banned caste discrimination, including Harvard University, Brown University and the California State University system.
According to the first survey on caste discrimination in the U.S. conducted in 2016 by Equality Labs, an organization fighting to end caste oppression, at least 25% of Dalits in the country said they had faced verbal or physical assault, while two out of three reported being treated unfairly in the workplace.
Still, there’s been little recourse for those facing caste discrimination in the U.S. In 2020, in the first lawsuit of its kind, California's fair employment agency sued Cisco Systems and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against an engineer from an oppressed caste.
“My understanding is that people are using Cisco, the Cisco case, as the kind of test case. And depending on how that case fares, people are sort of waiting in the wings to bring their own cases,” said Guha Krishnamurthi, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law who has written about the issue.
Krishnamurthi thinks general anti-discrimination statutes based on national origin and ancestry might already be strong enough to protect people from caste oppression. But he also believes raising awareness about the issue is important.
Certain organizations, such as the Hindu American Foundation, based in Washington D.C., have opposed Sawant's proposal. The organization says it unfairly singles out and discriminates against people of South Asian and Indian descent and argue that community members should rely on broader anti-discrimination statues for protection against caste-based discrimination. The group, however, also claims there is no evidence caste oppression is a widespread problem.
The recently passed legislation is meant to protect workers from South Asia who are members of oppressed castes and experience discrimination in Seattle.
In a recent interview, Sawant, an immigrant from India who grew up as a member of a dominant caste, said she sees the fight against caste oppression as a battle not unlike the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We are fighting for a society free of racism, free of oppression, which means nobody should be oppressed, regardless of your skin color,” Sawant said.
“But the starting point has to be what the reality is today. The reality is today, under capitalism, you have racist discrimination. You have discrimination based on sex and you have discrimination based on caste. You have discrimination based on your sexual orientation. I mean, you know, I can go on and on. But the point is, this is what we're fighting.”
The Seattle software engineer who is facing discrimination based on his caste said after working for his company for a decade he is searching for a new job.
“It’s not gonna stop,” he said of the unfair treatment. “This is a job that I don’t want to leave, but I have to leave."
“People never leave their caste. They might leave their country. The caste never leaves.”