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HomeNewsSeattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination

By Deepa Bharat | Associated Press

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first U.S. city to specifically ban caste discrimination.

Calls to ban caste discrimination, a division of people based on birth or descent, have become louder among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States. But the movement is facing opposition from some Hindu-Americans who argue that such legislation defames a specific community.

Proponents of the ordinance, which passed 6 to 1 on Tuesday, say caste discrimination transcends national and religious boundaries and those facing caste discrimination in the US will have no protection without such laws.

The ordinance is a contentious issue, especially among the country’s South Asian diaspora. Supporters argue that it is necessary because caste is not covered by existing civil rights protections. Groups opposed to the measure say it will defame a community already targeted by prejudice.

Councilman Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American on the city council, said the ordinance she proposed does not single out one community, but explains how caste discrimination transcends national and religious boundaries.

Activists from various sides of the issue began arriving in Seattle well ahead of Tuesday’s city council meeting. As early as last week, more than 100 people had submitted requests to speak at the meeting. Early Tuesday, several activists braved cold temperatures and gusty winds to line up outside city hall so they would have a chance to speak to the council before the vote. But the council limited public comment during the meeting.

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The origins of the caste system in India can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s occupation and birth. It is a system that has evolved over the centuries under Muslim and British rule. The suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits – continues. Caste discrimination has been banned in India since 1948, one year after the country’s independence from British rule.

Dalit activists from Seattle and beyond gathered at Seattle City Hall to support the ordinance, said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of California-based Equality Labs.

The US is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates that the US diaspora grew from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the US – more than the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In the past three years, several colleges and university systems have taken steps to ban caste discrimination.

In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US university to include caste in its non-discrimination policy. The California State University System, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have taken similar action. Harvard University instituted caste protection for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union.



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