Seattle has become the first city in the United States to ban caste discrimination, following a city council vote on 21 February. The city council of Seattle, in the northwestern state of Washington, voted 6-1 in favour of the ban. It applies to employment, housing, public transport and retail establishments.
Indian American council member Kshama Sawant introduced the legislation. And following its success, she described the victory as “historic”:
Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, said this is the first such ban outside of South Asia.
India’s Hindu caste system, which dates back thousands of years, divides society into a rigid hereditary hierarchy based on a belief in so-called upper-caste purity, with Dalits on the lowest rung facing discrimination and violence. Activists say caste-based discrimination has followed the South Asian diaspora to the United States. As a result, Dalit rights groups have lauded the ban.
The Ambedkar International Center echoed Sawant in saying the ban was “historic”:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, head of Equality Labs and who tweets as Dalit Diva, said “love has won over hate”:
While Dalit-run online magazine The Dalit Voice thanked Sawant for the victory:
Caste discrimination worldwide
When Sawant’s office introduced the legislation in January, she said:
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.
With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed.
In California’s Silicon Valley, tech giant Cisco is facing a caste discrimination lawsuit brought by a former worker. The worker has made allegations of bias against him due to his low caste status.
Caste discrimination also affects South Asian communities in the UK. Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN) UK said this manifests as a denial of goods and services, withholding of rental accommodation, and lack of action on complaints about workplace harassment. There is currently no specific legislation against caste discrimination in the UK, an oversight the government itself has noted. DSN-UK has campaigned for its inclusion in the Equality Act 2010 since the law was first implemented.
Featured image via Seattle Channel/YouTube
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse