Seattle made history Tuesday as the first city in the U.S. to expressly ban caste-based discrimination after an outpouring of input from South Asian Americans.
An ordinance introduced by District 4 Councilmember Kshama Sawant — Seattle’s only elected socialist and the only Indian member of the council — added caste to the list of statuses protected under Seattle’s existing anti-discrimination policies.
“This bill is not technically complicated, it’s a very simple question: Should discrimination based on caste be allowed to continue in Seattle?” Sawant said Tuesday, noting that she hopes the decision will be a “beacon” for other cities to follow suit.
“While simple, it is also profound and historic,” she added.
The council voted 6-1 to pass the ordinance, with at-large Councilmemer Sara Nelson casting the lone vote against.
While Nelson said caste discrimination is “abhorrent,” she voted against the ordinance citing a “reckless” potential for a lawsuit — specifically noting the likelihood of one coming from a “well-resourced” tech employer.
“Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should,” Nelson said.
Caste is a hierarchical system, stemming from Hinduism in India, assigned at birth in which the oppressed or Dalit are deemed “untouchables.” While India officially banned the system, its influence is still felt in South Asia and by South Asians in America.
Though there are 150,000 Indians in Washington, before Tuesday’s vote, someone who faced harassment or mistreatment based on caste would not be protected, while someone who faced gender, race or age discrimination would be, its supporters argue.
While the U.S. has never formally recognized the caste system, South Asians have faced discrimination within workplaces and higher education, with a growing number of organizations working to recognize and combat casteism in recent years.
Last year, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing was allowed by an appellate court to pursue a lawsuit against Cisco Systems, where an engineer was allegedly actively denied professional opportunities, a raise and promotions because of his caste background.
Brandeis University banned caste-based discrimination, or harassment based on caste, in 2019, and the University of California system — the largest state school system in the country — added caste to its discrimination protection policies in 2022.
Hundreds of speakers testified about caste during public comment in Seattle over the last two weeks, a vast majority of whom supported the ordinance. Of the over 100 speakers who were allowed to weigh in Tuesday before council ended comment — after nearly an hour and a half, with hundreds of in-person and remote speakers unable to speak — about a dozen were opposed, or asked the council to postpone the vote.
Opponents of the ordinance argue that the ordinance would be discriminatory toward Hindus and that with more than 2,000 different castes, it’s too complicated an issue to enforce.
Before the vote Tuesday, Sawant’s office denounced the argument that the policy would harm Hindus, comparing the argument to Christians who claim same-sex marriage imposes on the religious rights of those who oppose it.
“Everybody understands this is a right-wing argument. Genuine progressives support freedom of religion, but also understand that that cannot be an excuse to abuse LGBTQ people or discriminate against them,” Sawant’s office said in a statement about the ordinance published before the vote.
Supporters compared the system to apartheid and slavery, pleading for council members to pass the ordinance.
“It is not complex to decide against discrimination,” one speaker named Mohammed said.
“You don’t need to determine caste, you only need to determine whether to be the leader for the rest of the nation and make civil rights history,” he added.
Many of the Dalit or caste-oppressed individuals who spoke in favor of the ordinance withheld some or all of their names in public comment out of fear of retaliation. Groups ranging from religious organizations and higher education groups to the Alphabet Workers Union of Google employees spoke more freely in a joint letter sent to the city council.
“We oppose racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of hate and bigotry. We are troubled that caste-based discrimination is not currently prohibited under our anti-discrimination framework,” the letter co-signed by over 170 different organizations reads. “Like racism,bcasteism is a system of oppression; it is a very real — and growing — problem in our country and our local communities, but one that is not understood by most Americans.”
Nelson said she was also concerned that existing protections around ancestry would already cover caste discrimination. Noting that ambiguity, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said that the city should lean toward providing protections where there is gray area, noting the recent inclusion of pregnancy outcome, immigration status and others to city discrimination laws.
“I think it’s really important that we err on the side of protection against discrimination and have that legal clarity,” Herbold said.
Sawant rebuffed Nelson’s comments, arguing that previous human rights efforts like race and gender equality would have been stunted if people hedged from progressive policies because of a fear of retaliation or lawsuits.
“Bring it on,” Sawant said to opponents in her closing statement.
After thousands of letters and petition signatures imploring the council to vote one way or another, the present members voted 6-1. Councilmembers Sawant, Herbold, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda Alex Pedersen, and Dan Strauss voted in favor, sending the rowdy crowd in council chambers into loud cheers. Councilmember Nelson opposed. Council President Debora Juarez and Councilmember Andrew Lewis were absent from the meeting.
(c)2023 The Seattle Times
Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.