Protest to the First Comprehensive Measure of Caste in the U.S. Colleges and Universities: The Seattle City Council Made Caste Discrimination Inlegal Outside of South Asia
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first U.S. college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. The University of California, Davis, Colby College, Brown University and the California State University System all have adopted similar measures. The graduate student union at Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021.
Sylvia Carey-Butler said in a news release that the previous policy would protect people experiencing caste discrimination. We needed to explicitly express a position on caste equity, and lift this up.
Despite its origins in Hinduism, the caste system has since spread to other South Asian religious communities. Similar systems can be found in other parts of the world.
US tech companies, which employ a high concentration of South Asian workers, have grappled with issues of caste in recent years, and caste-oppressed students at US colleges and universities have previously told CNN that they have faced slurs, microaggressions and social exclusion on campus because of their caste identities.
The Seattle City Council made caste discrimination illegal in the United States and the first in the world to do that outside of South Asia.
“This could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians,” she said. “The community that is being impacted is deeply divided on this issue.”
The packed room overflowed with both sides of the issue, bearing banners, chanting slogans, and challenging the speakers and city officials as they made their comments. The majority of those in council chambers were in favor of the legislation, while the minority were against it.
As council members voted in favor of the ordinance, the chamber erupted into cheers of “Jai Bhim,” which means “victory for Bhim” a rallying cry adopted by followers of B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon whose given name was Bhimrao. In the U.S. diaspora communities, caste discrimination is a problem with South Asians being targeted in housing, education and the tech sector.
“I’m emotional because this is the first time such an ordinance has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia,” he said. “It’s a historic moment.”
Equality Labs, which is based in Oakland, California and works with community partners to push caste discrimination laws forward, hailed the council’s vote as a triumph.
“We got the support of over 200 organizations from Seattle and around the country,” she said. There is a message that people of the same race are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste.”
Council Member Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American on the City Council, said the ordinance, which she proposed, does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. Sawant said the council received over 4,000 emails in support of the ordinance.
Sara Nelson cast the lone dissent vote, she agreed with opponents who said the motion was a harmful solution to a problem that we have no data or research on.
Nelson also said it would cause the city to be entangled in legal battles. Sawant said being frightened of lawsuits isn’t enough to effect progress or change.
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She said it was like saying gender discrimination laws single out all men. “And just because we have a small population that is experiencing (caste discrimination) that doesn’t make it any less important.”
Shobha Swamy, a representative of the Coalition of Hindus of North America said she was disappointed by the council deliberations and line of questioning. The group said they received a show of support from over 100 organizations.
C.H. Sri Krishna, a tech worker based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is worried about how this will affect the South Asian community.
He said he never felt discriminated against in the U.S. as a member of a lower caste, and that he felt hurt by the legislation because it reminded him of his caste identity.
Activists prepared to speak to the council before the vote by braving cold temperatures and wind gusts to line up outside City Hall. But the council restricted public comment at the meeting where more than 300 people had requested to speak virtually and in person. They heard about half of the comments before moving on to deliberations and the vote.
5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S. and are from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka
There are about 2.7 million Indians in the U.S. and the second most popular destination is the US, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S. — up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.