SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first US city to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside of South Asia.
Calls to ban caste discrimination, which is the division of people based on birth or descent, have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States. But the movement has received opposition from some American Hindus who argue that such legislation offends a particular community.
Tensions within the community were evident in Seattle City Hall on Tuesday as the tumultuous hearing culminated in a 6-1 vote with a majority of council members agreeing that class discrimination transcends national and religious borders and that without such laws, those facing class discrimination in the states would not have The United States has no legal rights or protections.
The crowded room, filled with activists on both sides, holding banners, chanting slogans and challenging speakers and city officials as they made their comments, has led to stark divisions on the issue within the South Asian diaspora. The majority of those present in the council chambers were in favor of the decree and the opponents were in a vocal minority.
When the assembly members voted in favor of the ordinance, the room exploded with chants of “Jai Bhim”, which means “victory of Bhim”, a rallying cry adopted by the followers of B.R. Ambedkar, a symbol of Indian Dalit rights whose given name is Bhimrao. Dalit groups and their supporters say caste discrimination is pervasive in American diaspora communities, manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education, and the technology sector where South Asians play key roles.
Yogesh Mani, a Seattle native who was raised untouchable in India, burst into tears when he heard the council’s decision.
“I am emotional because this is the first time such a decree has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia,” he said. “It’s a historic moment and a powerful feeling when the law allows us to talk about the wrong things.”
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Equality Labs, whose work with community partners continues to move caste discrimination laws forward, called the board’s vote “a culture war that’s been won.”
“We have the support of over 200 organizations from Seattle and all over the country,” she said. “It’s a powerful message that Dalits are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to recover from caste trauma.”
Councilwoman Keshama Sawant, the socialist and the only Indian American on the city council, said the ordinance, which she proposed, does not define a single community, but explains how caste discrimination transcends national and religious boundaries. Sawant said the council had received more than 4,000 emails in support of the ordinance.
“We’ve heard hundreds of heartbreaking stories over the past few weeks showing how class discrimination is very real in Seattle,” she said.
Councilwoman Sarah Nelson, who cast the only dissenting vote, agreed with opponents who called the ordinance “a reckless and harmful solution to a problem we have no data or research on.”
“This may lead to further discrimination against Hindus and may discourage employers from hiring South Asians,” she said. “The affected community is deeply divided on this issue.”
Nelson also said that the law would get the city embroiled in legal battles, to which Sawant responded, “Bring it on.” Fearing lawsuits, Sawant said, is not the way to bring about progress or change.
Councilwoman Lisa Herbold questioned opponents’ reasoning that the law singles out Hindus and people of Indian descent.
“It’s like saying gender laws are for all men,” she said. “And just because we have a small population that suffers (class discrimination) doesn’t make them any less important.”
Sobha Swamy, Hindu Alliance North America representative, said she was disappointed with the council’s deliberations and the line of questioning. The group said it had received an offer of support from more than 100 organisations.
“No due diligence was done,” said Swami, who flew in from Atlanta. We will not stop fighting to educate people and create more awareness about our traditions and culture. It’s not a sprint, but it’s a marathon.”
CH Srikrishna, a technology worker in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he is concerned about the implications of this law for the South Asian community.
He said, “I also want discrimination to end.” But first we need to identify that there is widespread discrimination. We need more time, context and background. The way the council has rushed this matter is troubling.”
Srikrishna, who is Hindu, believes the law is targeting his religion.
He said, “When you say it originated 2,000 years ago, it is implied that Hinduism is to blame.” “It bothers me, I feel betrayed.”
Sanjay Patel, a tech company owner from the Seattle area, said he never felt discriminated against in the US as a member of the lower caste and that the law hurt him because it reminded him of his caste identity, which he thought had become archaic.
He said, “I’m afraid with this law companies will be afraid to hire South Asians. It will also affect personal relationships if members of society start viewing each other through a class lens.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, several activists braved the cold temperatures and gusts of wind to line up outside City Hall so they could have a chance to speak to the council before the vote. But the council is on public comment at the meeting, with more than 300 people asking to speak virtually and in person. They heard about half of the comments before moving on to deliberation and voting.
The origins of the caste system in India can be traced back 3,000 years ago as a social hierarchy based on an individual’s occupation and birth. It is a system that developed over the centuries under Islamic and British rule. Those at the bottom of the caste pyramid – known as Dalits – continued to suffer. Caste discrimination has been outlawed in India since 1948, the year after the nation gained independence from British rule.
The United States is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the number of American expatriates has grown from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. South Asian American Leading Together has reported that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the United States—up from 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most have roots in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Over the past three years, many colleges and university systems have moved to ban class discrimination.
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first American college to include social class in its nondiscrimination policy. The California State University system, Colby College, Brown University, and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. Harvard University created class protections for working students in 2021 as part of its contract with the Graduate Student Union.
AP religious coverage is supported by an Associated Press collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. And the AP is solely responsible for this content.
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