Seattle became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination on Tuesday, after its local council voted to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.
The move addresses an issue important to the area’s South Asian diaspora, particularly the Indian and Hindu communities. India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification.
“The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression,” Kshama Sawant, an Indian American Seattle City Council member, said.
The caste system dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Indian Hindu caste system and have been treated as “untouchables.”
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries. It is faced by South Asian American and other immigrant working people in their workplaces, including in the tech sector, in Seattle and in cities around the country,” Sawant said when her office introduced the proposal to ban caste-based discrimination in Seattle.
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Even though India has banned untouchability, Dalits still face widespread abuse across that country, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.
Debate over the caste system’s hierarchy is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion. Some people say discrimination is now rare. Indian government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.
Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence should be outlawed. U.S. discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism.