Seattle became the first American city to legally prohibit discriminating against someone because of their caste.
The City Council voted 6-1 to add caste, the social hierarchy found in South Asia and South Asian immigrant communities in Western countries, to the city’s anti-discrimination law.
“This bill is not technically complicated, it’s a very simple question: Should discrimination based on caste be allowed to continue in Seattle?” said District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who introduced the ordinance, on Feb. 21. Sawant is the lone socialist and Indian American member of the city council.
“While simple, it is also profound and historic,” Sawant added, per The Seattle Times.
The ordinance was subject to over an hour of public comment on Feb. 21, with more than 100 people speaking in-person or remotely. The council reportedly received thousands of letters on the matter.
According to the Times, “there are 150,000 Indian Americans in Washington,” many of whom “faced harassment or mistreatment based on caste would not be protected, unlike someone who faced gender, race or age discrimination, supporters of the ordinance argued.”
Opponents of the measure argued that the measure was unnecessary or too complicated to enforce, as there are more than 2,000 different castes. Others argued that the ordinance is a form of discrimination against Hinduism, the religion from which the hierarchy stems.
“Throughout our two decades of existence, HAF has maintained that caste discrimination is wrong, violating core Hindu principles of the divine oneness of all beings,” said Suhag Shukla, the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, in a statement. “At the same time, we maintain that the singling out of South Asians and addition of ‘caste’ to non-discrimination policy violates the very policies it now amends.”
“The City of Seattle has voted to treat South Asians in a manner that no other ethnic or racial community is treated under the guise of non-discrimination. It has voted yes to discriminating against ethnic minorities, repeating the ugliness of nativists in the state nearly a century ago,” Shukla said.
The Hindu American Foundation says it will closely monitor the ordinance’s implementation and is “investigating all avenues of response to this facially discriminatory policy.”
Universities, including Brown University, Brandeis University, Colby College, the University of California at Davis, and California State University, have added caste to the protected classes specified in their anti-discrimination policies.
Brown’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs conducted a study on caste discrimination in the private sector in 2011. The study, titled “Research Details Caste Discrimination in Indian Private Sector,” found a “clear statistical pattern” of “applicants with names associated with a low-caste background faced odds of a positive outcome only 0.67 as large as those for an application with a typically high-caste name.”
In 2021, an appellate court ruled the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing can move forward with a caste discrimination lawsuit filed against Cisco Systems. The department sued the company in June of 2020 on behalf of an engineer has says two managers, who are also of Indian origin, discriminated against him because of his caste. Cisco has denied the allegations.
The Indian caste system can be traced back 3,000 years according to AP News. An individual’s status is determined both by birth and occupation.