The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seattle becomes first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination

Protesters during the discussion of the ordinance in Seattle City Council chambers on Tuesday. (John Froschauer/AP)
4 min

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to ban caste-based discrimination, in the first such move by a U.S. city. The move adds caste as a protected category to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, which already include prohibitions against discriminating on disability, religion and sexual orientation.

The movement has won a “historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination,” tweeted Kshama Sawant, the socialist council member who introduced the legislation. “Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country.”

The caste system is a hierarchal structure that determines a person’s social standing at birth. It has roots in Hinduism but later proliferated to members of other faiths in South Asia. Dalits, formerly called untouchables, are relegated to the bottom rung in the South Asian order, though India legally abolished the concept of “untouchability” decades ago.

But caste-based discrimination remains entrenched in society, and similar practices have followed the South Asian diaspora community to the United States and elsewhere, activists say. More recently, there have been efforts to bring attention to caste-based prejudice in Silicon Valley and Seattle workplaces, where there are many tech professionals of South Asian origin. More than 150,000 people from South Asia live in Washington state, with many based in the greater Seattle area, the city council said.

Seattle’s move will prohibit businesses from discriminating on caste lines when it comes to employment, access to public spaces and housing, Sawant said when she introduced the measure.

India’s engineers have thrived in Silicon Valley. So has its caste system.

“It is a national problem,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights groups in California. She said her organization had received complaints from more than 250 workers, with many alleging “caste slurs in workplaces, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, demotion to retaliation and even firing.”

Communities in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific region also have caste-based exclusionary systems, according to a 2016 report by the United Nations, that also found that at least 250 million people are affected by such discrimination.

The Seattle measure was opposed by the Hindu American Foundation, which said that it was against caste-based discrimination but argued that the measure would single out its community. It said in a Tuesday statement that it is investigating “all avenues of response.”

Dalit rights groups have documented examples of caste bias in the United States.

In June 2020, Cisco and two of its former managers were sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, accusing it of discriminating against a Dalit engineer. (As of last summer, the case was ongoing.)

Google’s plan to talk about caste bias led to ‘division and rancor’

A group of 30 female Indian engineers who worked at tech companies including Google and Apple released a statement in October 2020 that said they had seen or experienced caste discrimination at their workplaces. They called working with Indian managers a “living hell” and said they did not have avenues to report discrimination to their companies because caste was not a protected class.

Education institutes were some of the first organizations in the United States to enact protections against caste bias. The California State University system added caste as a protected category under its anti-discrimination policy last year. (Two Hindu professors filed a lawsuit against the measure.)

Yashica Dutt, who grew up in a Dalit family in small-town India and now lives in New York, said she feels more comfortable asserting her identity in the United States, though caste bias is “still very present.”

Dutt, author of the 2019 memoir “Coming Out as Dalit” said she has made decisions with her caste as a factor while in the United States, such as not living in neighborhoods with a large South Asian population and not working in the tech industry.

“It’s a bitter system that dehumanizes you,” she said after the Seattle vote. “Finally, people will have some protection.”

Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report.