Seattle becomes first city to ban caste discrimination – The Hill

The story at a glance

  • . Seattle has become the first city to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws.

  • India’s caste system officially ended in 1948, but the shadow of the social hierarchy still exists in the country and in the South Asian diaspora.

  • The Dalits, once referred to as the “untouchables”, were at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Seattle is now the first city in the United States to officially ban discrimination based on caste after lawmakers voted Tuesday to pass an ordinance adding caste to the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws.

The city council voted 6-1 in favor of the change.

Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the ordinance, said she proposed the legislation to stop an “invisible and unaddressed” form of discrimination.

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“Caste discrimination does not only take place in other countries,” said Sawant. “It’s being met by South Asian Americans and other immigrant workers in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country.”

India’s caste system was officially abolished in the late 1940s, but the 3,000-year-old social hierarchy still exists in some form today with Dalits, once known as the “untouchables,” at the bottom.

The shadow of the centuries-old hierarchy has found its way to the United States, which is home to 2.7 million Indian immigrants and 5.4 million people with roots across South Asia, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Although there is limited research on caste discrimination in the United States, a 2016 study by Equity Labs found that 25 percent of Dalits in the United States reported experiencing verbal or physical abuse.

The study also found that two in three Dalits in the country reported being treated unfairly in the workplace and one in three Dalit students reported being discriminated against at some point during their education.

Some colleges and universities have taken steps to help address caste discrimination on their campuses. The California State University System updated its discrimination policy to include caste early last year, making it the first university system in the country to do so, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Brown University followed suit, becoming the first Ivy League school to ban discrimination based on caste in December 2022, in part due to the advocacy efforts of South Asian students.

“Our non-discrimination policies exist to ensure that we protect people and to ensure that the university environment is free from harm and harm,” Brown Corporation Vice President of Institutional Rights and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler said after the changes were passed.

“We have a longstanding commitment to this work, and it’s embedded in the fabric of who we are.”

The nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service called caste-based discrimination “a pervasive, worldwide problem” and urged a vote in favor of the ordinance.

Julia Mueller contributed to this report.

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