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Seattle council poised to vote on outlawing caste discrimination

Origins of the caste system in India can be traced back 3,000 years
Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks to supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws at a rally at Seattle City Hall, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Seattle. Sawant proposed the ordinance. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Seattle City Council members are preparing to vote on whether to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. If approved, Seattle would become the first city in the United States to do so.

The proposed ordinance, being considered Tuesday, is a contentious issue, especially among the nation’s South Asian diaspora. Supporters argue it is needed because caste is not covered under existing civil rights protections. Groups opposing the measure say it will malign a community that is already the target of prejudice.

Activists and organizers on different sides of the issue began arriving in Seattle on Monday.

As early as last week, more than 100 people had put in requests to speak at the meeting. Early Tuesday, several activists braved cold temperatures and wind gusts to line up outside City Hall so they would get a chance to speak to the council before the vote.

Council Member Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American on the City Council, said her proposed ordinance does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.

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. It is a system that has evolved over the centuries under Muslim and British rule. The suffering of those who are at the bottom of the caste pyramid — known as Dalits — has continued. Caste discrimination has been prohibited in India since 1948, a year after the nation’s independence from British rule.

Dalit activists from Seattle and beyond planned two rallies at Seattle City Hall in support of the ordinance, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of California-based Equality Labs.

The U.S. is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the U.S. 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 U.S. — 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 U.S. 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 proposed Seattle measure has the support of Dalit activist-led organizations 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 this proposed ordinance comes 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 U.S.


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