Few Americans are aware of the caste system, but one US city has expanded the definition of discrimination to protect those placed at the lowest end of this pervasive social hierarchy.
Seattle, Washington, became the first US city to outlaw caste-based discrimination on February 21 after the city council voted to expand the list of protections under Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws.
Council member Kshama Sawant, who was born in India, moved the resolution in the council, where it passed by a 6-1 vote. The resolution amends Seattle’s municipal code to include caste among the list of protected grounds where discrimination is prohibited in employment, education, and housing.
Caste is a system originating in India that creates a rigid hierarchy of social classes based on hereditary status and other fixed categories. Those considered to be in the upper caste benefit from privileges unavailable to those considered to be in the lower caste.
After the resolution was passed, Sawant tweeted that “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.”
The passage was not universally welcomed, however. Some Hindus in the United States are voicing concerns that the addition of a protected ground exclusively relevant to one minority group will lead to differential treatment for South Asians in the country.
“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 Hindu American Foundation co-founder and Executive Director Suhag Shukla, Esq. “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.”
HAF is an educational and advocacy organization dedicated to informing the public about Hindus and Hinduism.
Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization in California dedicated to ending caste, congratulated Seattle for the move. Dalits are considered to be in the lower rung of the caste system.
“With South Asian Americans becoming one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the United States, it is critical for us to acknowledge the need to support caste oppressed communities, who are essentially minorities within this minority group, in Seattle,” the organization said in a press release.
Equality Labs has previously come to attention after Google cancelled a talk by the organization’s executive director, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, amid controversy over the divisiveness of the issue of caste.
Indian-American state senator from Ohio, Niraj Antani, condemned the passage of the resolution, contending that caste discrimination “simply doesn’t exist now.”
Research published by the Pew Center in 2021 found that, while 82% of surveyed Indians reported that they had not personally experienced caste-based discrimination in the year before the survey, Indians still conduct their lives largely within caste hierarchies.
Indian Americans are the third largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, with a population of 3.5 million in 2017, according to data compiled in India Matters for America/America Matters for India.
Aaron McNicholas is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student in the MA in Asian Studies program at Georgetown University, with a concentration in politics and security.