‘Today, Seattle; Tomorrow, the Nation’—Inside the Movement to Ban Caste Discrimination – Progressive.org

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office had lined up heaters for the twenty people who stood in the freezing cold at 2 a.m. The crowd had arrived early to attend a city council vote on whether caste discrimination would be banned in the city.

Their efforts—and those of thousands of others who emailed, called, or gave testimony—paid off. On February 21, by a six-to-one vote, Seattle became the first jurisdiction in the United States to outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste.

From tech workers to gas station employees, thousands of Seattleites stand to benefit directly from the new law’s policies. While there is no exact count on the number of people who suffer from caste discrimination in the city, 67 percent of South Asian Americans nationally who identified as Dalits, a broad term for the lowest stratum of the system, reported being treated unfairly in the workplace. 

“Ordinary people, academics, activists, Canadians, women, Sikhs, Muslims, [the support base] was very, very diverse,” says Anil Wagde, a spokesperson for the Ambedkar International Center, one of the key organizations that moved the campaign to success in a matter of weeks.

“We simply outnumbered [the opponents] by sheer enthusiasm, sheer energy.”

Hundreds of millions have already benefited indirectly from the law’s passage. Taken together, 260 million people in the world are caste-oppressed, according to the International Dalit Solidarity Network. If all of them resided in a single country, it would be at least the fifth largest by population in the world, behind only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia.

“This win in Seattle is a real beacon of hope, because it can show intersectional politics will actually be the way that we can defeat the forces of bigotry and fascism,” says Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs, an important Dalit civil rights organization that also actively worked on the Seattle campaign.

Because of the new ordinance, caste discrimination in education, employment, housing, and public accommodations in the Northwestern city will now be dealt with in the same way that racial, gender, disability, and other biases, which were already covered by existing anti-discrimination laws.

“The [existing] law in Seattle gives an LGBTQ+ person the right to go to court and say, ‘I am LGBTQ+, and I have faced discrimination because of being LGBTQ+. And here’s the evidence.’ 

The [new] caste-based discrimination law will work in exactly the same way,” Sawant told The Quint.

The law adds caste to around twenty grounds for which the city’s Office for Civil Rights was already charged with addressing “disparate treatment and impact.”

Caste is defined by the new law as a “system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.” In plain English, it is a way of grouping people hierarchically on the basis of occupation, ancestry, marriage, and in innumerable other ways in daily life. 

For example, in practice this might mean that not everyone is allowed to draw water from the same well or to marry their chosen partner because of the caste to which they belong. It might mean that someone is not hired into a particular position or is not allowed to live in a specific place. In this sense, it is very similar to some of the ways that race has historically operated in the United States. 

Importantly, as the law notes, caste discrimination does not have to be legally enforced to exist; in fact, caste and caste discrimination often occur even when the latter is expressly prohibited.

“I had to face the caste discrimination while on [a U.S.] campus, from Indian students who were from a very dominant caste background, and then see others get discriminated [against at work].”

“I had to face the caste discrimination while on [a U.S.] campus, from Indian students who were from a very dominant caste background, and then see others get discriminated [against at work],” says Suresh Kumar, a member of Ambedkar Association of North America.

In 2019, Brandeis University became the first American university to ban caste-based discrimination, a move soon followed by others, including Colby College, Brown University, and, most recently, the Cal State system

Kumar is a caste-oppressed tech worker in the Chicago area who declined to use his real name because of fear of harassment and bullying against him and his family, a frequent concern among caste-oppressed people who speak out. But, he recognizes, “the discrimination at these tech companies is nowhere close to the human rights violations blue-collar people face every day [due to casteism].”

In Robbinsville, New Jersey, for example, Dalit construction workers had their passports confiscated and were made to labor for $1.20 an hour, twelve hours a day, to build a lavish Hindu temple. Their employers did not allow them to leave the temple grounds on their own and they were threatened with fines or calls to the police if they spoke to temple visitors. They were also constantly monitored by video. Six of the workers filed a class action lawsuit against the employer in 2021. 

The Seattle law’s proponents say a popular misconception is that caste only exists among Hindus in India or among its diaspora. Indeed, the far right Hindu American Foundation claims the ordinance is “discriminatory” because it allegedly singles out South Asians, Indians, and Hindus.

But the phenomenon of caste exists among Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other religious communities in India. Kumar, for example, is a member of the Ravidassia community, who are caste-oppressed Sikhs.

Caste is also present in other South Asian countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Similar social forms even exist in places as diverse as Japan and Nigeria. 

“It’s a human rights issue,” says Raghav Kaushik, a member of the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans. He adds that caste is “generally South Asia-centric, not only India-centric.” 

Proponents of the law emphasize that caste discrimination often coincides with other forms of bias, such as those relating to gender, employment, and race.

Caste discrimination, Soundararajan explains, can occur within abusive intercaste relationships, where a dominant-caste person might use their higher status to demean their caste-oppressed partner with slurs or worse.

For now, the ordinance’s supporters intend to carry the fight forward from Seattle to other cities across the United States as they also take in the breathtaking nature of their victory. “Today, Seattle; tomorrow, the nation,” says Soundararajan.

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