Seattle made history on Tuesday when it became the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination.
The ordinance, which the city council approved by a 6-1 vote, amended Seattle’s municipal code to include caste as a protected category, along with race, gender, religion, and national origin. According to the Associated Press, the measure was sponsored by Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American councilwoman and a prominent member of Socialist Alternative. She said the ordinance will address important issues facing Indian-American communities, as India had a rigid caste system that dated back over 3,000 years.
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries,” Sawant said. “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. That’s why my office is proud to bring forward first-in-the-nation legislation for our city to ban caste-based discrimination, in solidarity with our South Asian and other immigrant community members, and all working people.”
She continued, “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.”
The legislation defines caste as a system of “social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.” Though India abolished the caste system in 1948, experts say caste discrimination exists today in less formal ways. This is particularly noticeable among the Dalits—a group of people previously known as the “untouchables.” According to the AP, Dalits were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and continue to face discrimination based on their caste identities.
A 2016 study by Equity Labs found that 25 percent of Dalits living in the U.S. reported instances of physical or verbal assaults. Sawant said the measure will make it much easier for caste-oppressed people to file discrimination complaints.
“The legislation will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages,” she explained. “It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.”