Seattle has become the first city in the U.S. to ban caste-based discrimination. Caste-based discrimination is a division of people based on birth or descent.
Seattle City Council Members voted 6-1 on Tuesday to add the provision to the city’s anti-bias laws.
Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities. Proponents of the ordinance say without such laws, those facing caste discrimination in the U.S. will have no protections.
One council member, Kshama Sawant, had experienced the caste system first-hand and proposed an ordinance to add caste to the anti-discrimination laws of the city. She is the only Indian American on the city council.
She said the ordinance does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.
In India, the origins of the caste system can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s birth. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Indian Hindu caste system and has been treated as “untouchables.”
While the definition of caste has evolved over the centuries, under both Muslim and British rule, the suffering of those at the bottom of the caste pyramid has continued.
The national debate in the United States around caste has been centered in the South Asian community, causing deep divisions within the diaspora. The U.S. is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad.
But the move is also contentious and has seen opposition from some Hindu Americans who argue that such legislation maligns a community that is already the target of prejudice.
Groups in support of the measure say caste discrimination is prevalent in diaspora communities manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education, and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.