The city council of Seattle, Washington, passed a vote on Tuesday to add caste discrimination to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. The new ordinance will enshrine the protected status of lower-caste individuals alongside other categories, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion.
The move was led by council member Kshama Sawant, 50, who was raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin home in India. She and others worry that caste remains to this day a source of discrimination affecting South Asians living in the United States.
In her advocacy for the new ordinance, Sawant reflected on a memory from her childhood in which her grandfather used a slur to summon their maid, who happened to be from a lower caste. She added that the change was backed by several groups, including Amnesty International and Alphabet Workers Union, which represents employees from Google’s parent company.
In Indian society, discrimination and violence against Dalits is woven into the history of the country and continues today. The term “dalit” was first used by the British in the 1930s and yet represents ethnic groups in India and Nepal that have historically been excluded from the fourfold varna system of class and caste in the region. This system dates to well before the life of the historical Buddha.
The term Dalit was popularized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an economist and reformer and the chairman of India’s Constitution Drafting Committee in 1947. India’s constitution, ratified in 1950, formally bans discrimination by caste. Seeing the urgency for many in India to escape the discriminatory system for a better way of life, Ambedkar led a mass conversion to Buddhism of some 500,000 of his supporters in 1956.
Many Dalits, and organizations that work on their behalf, say that caste discrimination has followed them to the US and other countries. In 2020, California regulators sued Cisco Systems over caste discrimination faced by one of the company’s Indian engineers, who was from a Dalit family.
Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization based in California, has said that caste discrimination remains prevalent in diaspora communities—found in the form of social alienation, discrimination in housing and education, as well as in the tech sector, where many South Asians hold key roles.
The national group Hindus for Human Rights voiced its support for the new ordinance in Seattle and celebrated its passage.
However, the Hindu American Foundation observed that legislation like this could stigmatize all South Asians. Suhag Shukla, executive director of the foundation, expressed opposition to the ordinance. “It singles out and targets an ethnic minority and seeks to institutionalize implicit bias toward a community,” Shukla said. “It sends that message that we are an inherently bigoted community that must be monitored.” (PBS)
Councilor Sawant has argued that the new ordinance does not single out any one community, but instead accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. According to a 2016 United Nations report, at least 250 million people worldwide face caste discrimination in Asia, Africa, Southwest Asia, Pacific regions, and in various diaspora communities.
As cases of discrimination arise and awareness spreads, many communities are adding caste to their policies against discrimination. The 23-campus California State University system made caste a protected category in 2022. And in 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first US college to add caste in its nondiscrimination policy. Several other universities, including Harvard in 2021, have followed suit.
Hindus for Human Rights deputy executive director Nikhil Mandalaparthy expressed support for the ordinance. “Caste needs to be a protected category because we want South Asians to have similar access to opportunities and not face discrimination in workplaces and educational settings,” he said. “Sometimes, that means airing the dirty laundry of the community in public to make it known that caste-based discrimination is not acceptable.” (BPS)
D.B. Sagar, whose family is Dalit and practices both Buddhism and Hinduism, said that he had faced caste oppression in the 1990s in Nepal, before emigrating to the US in 2007. “We were not allowed to participate in village festivals or enter temples,” he said. “Buddhists did not allow anyone from the Dalit community to become monks. You could change your religion, but you still cannot escape your caste identity. If converting to another religion was a solution, people would be free from caste discrimination by now.” (PBS)
Sagar said he was surprised to encounter similar problems since moving to the US. This led him to form the International Commission for Dalit Rights, which held a march to the White House and Capitol Hill in 2014 demanding that caste discrimination be recognized under the US Civil Rights Act.
“Caste is a social justice issue, period,” he emphasized. (PBS)
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of South Asians living in the US grew from 206,000 in 1980 to 2.7 million in 2021. Another organization, South Asian Americans Leading Together, reported that there were nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the US today—up from 3.5 million recorded in the 2010 census.
Seattle City Council considers historic law barring caste discrimination (PBS)
Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination (The Press Democrat)
Seattle becomes the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination (NPR)
Caste in America: Mothers Like Me are Excluded From Indian Parent Networks Because I am a Dalit (American Kahani)
Related news reports from BDG
Indian Social Activist Rajagopal P. V. Selected for the 40th Niwano Peace Prize
236 Dalits Convert to Buddhism on Anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar’s 1956 Conversion
Experts Urge India’s Dalits to Register as Buddhist in 2021 Census
Dalai Lama Urges India to Abandon Caste System
Related features from BDG
A Buddhist View on Caste and Equality
Buddhistdoor View: The Complexities of Buddhist Conversion and the Indian Dalit Movement