Seattle makes history, first in U.S. to pass bill banning caste-based discrimination

Ritu Jha-

Seattle made history on Tuesday, February 21, as the first city in the U.S. to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council passed a resolution to — added caste to the list of statuses protected under Seattle’s existing anti-discrimination policies. The ordinance was introduced by District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant — Seattle’s only elected socialist and the only Indian American on the council.

The legislation passed on with a 6-1 vote prohibits, “businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages.”

The new law also bans discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. It will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.

Sawant Tweeted: “It’s official: our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country.”

“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 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.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit rights activist and the Executive Director at Equality Labs, the force behind this anti-discrimination movement told to indica over the phone she feels ‘Happy’ about the bill being passed.

Adding on she said, “Love has won over hate as Seattle has become the first in the nation to ban caste discrimination. We have braved rape threats, death threats, disinformation, and bigotry. Thank you to the 200 organizations who stood with us! Thank you to the 30 caste-oppressed civil rights organizations who spoke truth to power! Thank you all who called in, and thank you council woman Sawant and Seattle Council for standing on the right side of history! We are United as a south Asian American community in our commitment to heal from caste.”

“What’s really important is that this campaign really shows a different kind of a way that we can build within the South Asian community. I think that we faced a lot of hate and polarization but this campaign was a real beacon of hope because we had interfaith inter-caste, multi-racial people who came together to make workplaces safe for all and to heal from caste and that call for healing is just irresistible. It was tremendous to see that moment and everyone in that room is going to remember it. There was just such a level of palpable joy and power. This was an incredible experience because the place in the South Asian community come together, we educated people, we inspired them to trust us through our really empathetic and loving and powerful movement and it transformed everyone that came into touch with.”

“First Seattle now the nation”. That’s the mantra of Soundararajan: “First Seattle next the nation. It’s a huge campaign for which people are so ready. I know to our opponents want to litigate their bigotry but that’s when I think they could actually invest that into services for their community. I would just urge them not to litigate their fragility and take time to listen and build and connect back to the rest of the South Asian community that’s moving beyond them and their bigotry.”

“We are really working to make sure that every institution in America is committed to making its workplaces safe for all workers. We’re concerned about what’s happening to employees over caste and we wish to get caste added to the nondiscrimination policy of every institution in the United States. Intersectionality is really at the heart of this win. We have workers, queer people, feminists that work on gender-based violence, indigenous people, and racial justice advocates supporting the movement. I think it’s so healing to be part of this synergy because we’re seeing it, and experiencing it,” she added.

In recent weeks, a vast majority of people have thrown their weight behind the ordinance. At Tuesday’s meeting alone, more than 300 people signed up to speak before the vote, with more than 100 people allowed to weigh in for nearly an hour and a half, both in person and remotely. About a dozen opposed the ordinance on Tuesday or asked the council to postpone the vote.

The opponents of the ordinance argue that the law will discriminate against Hindus and that with more than 2,000 different castes, it’s too complicated of an issue to enforce.

Mat McDermott, of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) did not sound pleased with the news, told indica when asked did they fail to top the bill,, “Ultimately stopping any local bill like this requires the local community to step up. National organizations such as ours have a role to play, without a doubt. I would say the Hindu American community as a whole, at least those of us opposed to addressing caste discrimination in this manner failed to stop it.”

Asked about the concern and will other cities accept this, said, “I think the bills are moving. We will see other cities attempt something similar. We stand by our legal argument that adding caste as a specific category is unconstitutional for the reasons stated in our press release and that existing categories of non-discrimination law such as ancestry can and should be used to address incidents of alleged caste discrimination when they occur.”

In the press release HAF co-founder and Executive Director Suhag Shukla, stated: “Throughout our two decades of existence, HAF has maintained that caste discrimination is wrong, violating core Hindu principles of the divine oneness of all beings. At the same time, we maintain that the singling out of South Asians and the addition of ‘caste’ to the non-discrimination policy violates the very policies it now amends. The City of Seattle has voted to treat South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans in a manner that no other ethnic or racial community is treated under the guise of non-discrimination. It has voted yes to discriminating against ethnic minorities, repeating the ugliness of nativists in the state nearly a century ago.”

HAF stated that in passing this resolution, Seattle is now in violation of the US Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process that prohibit the state from treating disparately people on account of their national origin, ethnicity, or religion, and implementing a vague, facially discriminatory and arbitrary category, Foundation attorneys contended.

“Though caste discrimination has been presented by Councilmember Sawant and her supporters as being rampant in the US, the only authoritative survey on discrimination against the Indian and South Asian community here, done by the Carnegie Endowment, has found that incidents of caste discrimination are rare. Furthermore, this survey specifically rebuked the findings and methodology of a survey by Equality Labs upon which Councilmember Sawant based her resolution,” HAF stated.

HAF is investigating all avenues of response to this facially discriminatory policy and will also be closely monitoring the implementation of it as that too will be discriminatory given its applicability to only certain ethnic groups in the City of Seattle.

Before the vote on Tuesday, Sawant’s office denounced the argument that the policy would harm Hindus, comparing the stance to that of Christians who claim same-sex marriage imposes on the religious rights of those who oppose it. “Everybody understands this is a right-wing argument,” Sawant said in a statement published before the vote. “Genuine progressives support freedom of religion, but also understand that that cannot be an excuse to abuse LGBTQ people or discriminate against them.” Supporters compared the system to apartheid and slavery, pleading for council members to pass the ordinance.

CoHNA President Nikunj Trivedi believes, “This law itself is inherently discriminatory because, unlike other categories such as race, gender, religion, ancestry, etc. it singles out the South Asian community as requiring special monitoring.”

“I was disappointed at how my voice was ignored. The council gave voice only to selected voices, without taking into consideration the fact that not all groups in the Dalit-Bahajun community support such a divisive and discriminatory bill,” added CoHNA Steering Committee member and Dalit community activist Aldrin Deepak.

However, for Prashant Nema, a member of the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans (CSIA), the passage of the bill will help in creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Karthikeyan Shanmugam, Secretary Ambedkar King Study Circle (AKSC) stated: “The oppressed have a fear of their caste identity being outed by members of the dominant caste, and this typically leads to social exclusion or retaliation. This ordinance will help the oppressed unshackle their dreams, unleash their talents and live up to their full potential. The whole world stands to benefit from this blossoming of talent previously stifled.”

Anil Wagde, a Dalit rights activist and member of Ambedkar International Center (AIC) said: “This historic decision will have far-reaching implications for the oppressed castes in the States and everywhere that the evils of caste have spread. We will continue to work to add caste as a protected category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we prepare for the work ahead, let us take this moment to celebrate this landmark collective win for caste equity and justice.”

Hasan Khan, IAMC board member from Seattle said: “Caste discrimination is unacceptable and goes against the fundamental principles of human rights and dignity.”

Maya Kamble of the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) said: “Caste-based discrimination is a deeply entrenched and harmful practice that has no place in our society. The legislation passed with a 6-1 vote in Seattle today is a major milestone in our fight for social justice and human rights. It will not stop until we have a nationwide ban on this inhumane practice.”

Aneelah Afzali, Executive Director of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s newly launched American Muslim Empowerment Network (MAPS-AMEN) said: “Today, through a powerful movement, we helped push ‘the arc of the moral universe’ toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned, by winning the first – but certainly not the last – ordinance to explicitly ban the evil of caste discrimination. This victory is a win not just for those facing caste oppression in Seattle, but for morality, humanity, and all of us who seek to build a world based on justice for all.”


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