(This piece was originally published in Real Change News and is republished with permission.)
On Jan. 24, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant announced at a press conference at City Hall new legislation to prohibit caste-based discrimination in the city of Seattle. If passed, the ordinance would add caste to the city’s list of protected classes, outlawing discrimination in employment, housing, public places and contracting. It would also empower the Seattle Office for Civil Rights to investigate complaints of caste discrimination and facilitate a settlement for monetary damages or other forms of recompense.
Last May, Real Change reported that caste remains a hidden and underreported issue among South Asian communities in the Seattle area. In recent years, anti-caste advocates have won important victories in the United States, such as California’s 2020 lawsuit against megacorporation Cisco for caste-based discrimination and the recognition of caste as a protected status by the California State University system in 2022.
The caste system is based in Vedic texts dating back more than 2,000 years. It is a system of social segregation and discrimination that assigns privileges to different hereditary groups and according obligations and oppressions. In 1950, the Indian constitution banned the practice, yet crushing social discrimination remains, especially against Dalit communities (formerly known as untouchables).
Dalit leader, statesman and scholar B. R. Ambedkar once predicted that, unless it was eradicated, caste would spread throughout the diaspora. In a 1916 paper he presented at Columbia University, Ambedkar wrote: “[I]f Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
More than 167,000 South Asians live in Washington state, many of whom work in the Seattle region’s large tech sector. The lack of formal protections may be part of the reason casteism remains a relatively unknown issue.
Sawant said that she decided to introduce the legislation after South Asian community members approached her asking for the city to fight against caste-based oppression. Many of them were present at the press conference as well. “As a socialist, I am fighting for a world that is free of all oppression — whether it is based on race, gender, caste or religion — and a world free of all economic exploitation,” she said.
Samir Khobragade, a Seattle tech worker who comes from a Dalit background, described at the press conference how pervasive caste-based social discrimination is. “I didn’t shake hands with an upper-caste person until I was 12 years old,” Khobragade said.
“And I didn’t touch an upper-caste person until I went to the 6th grade, and I went to a different school and didn’t study with an upper-caste classmate before I went to college. In college, my friends would invite me to their house, but their moms would serve me water in a different cup.”
Khobragade said that this bias does not magically get erased when people move to the United States. “When we Indians come to the U.S., we bring our biases with us,” he said. “We get away with the discriminatory behavior because people in the U.S. do not know how to spot this discriminatory behavior. There is no education and there is no precedence here, and there are no laws to protect caste-oppressed people. This ordinance will make such behavior illegal and will protect me, my children, my family and my community.”
The bill sparked an outpouring of people from the South Asian community sharing their histories of experiencing or witnessing caste-based discrimination and testifying in support for the proposed ordinance at a public comment session during a City Council meeting held later that day.
“When I was 16, I was thrown out of a housing when the landlady learned about my caste, just because of minor dispute, with comments like, ‘I should have asked your caste before renting out; all that you people are capable of is cleaning the sewers and you should stay that way,’” said one commenter. “No doubt this stayed with me and scarred me for life.”
“Caste discrimination is very much alive in the local area,” another commenter said. “I work in the tech sector in Microsoft, and I can tell you from my personal experience that when there was affirmative action announced by the Indian government a decade ago, there was an email discussion about that in the Microsoft email threads. Various employees expressed a lot of bigoted, hateful comments questioning the diligence of caste-oppressed people. Those kinds of hideous comments didn’t lead to any kind of accountability — those people still kept their jobs, maybe even got promoted.”
A number of organizations have endorsed the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, including the Alphabet Workers Union, Equality Labs, the Ambedkar International Center and the Ambedkar Association of North America. Proponents hope to continue to build momentum for the legislation, which is slated to be voted in February.
Lama Choyin Rangdrol, a Seattle-based African American Tibetan Buddhist teacher, said that the fight against casteism is tied to the fight against racism. He said that when abolitionists formulated the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment, they specifically cited the Indian caste system as something they wanted to avoid.
“This is not a condemnation of a religion; it’s a condemnation of a behavior which we have long avoided in this country,” Rangdrol said.