First-Ever Anti-Caste Discrimination Law Introduced in America

A draft ordinance was submitted to the city council of Seattle, Washington proposing a law against caste discrimination in the United States. If the city council approves this ordinance, then this will be the first time the U.S. prohibits caste discrimination.

The ordinance was submitted by district 3 city council member Kshama Sawant on January 24, who wishes to add caste discrimination to the list of prejudices outlawed in workplaces in Seattle. The list already includes gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. This movement aims to make the U.S. recognize caste as an exclusionary system in a country with a vast Indian diaspora.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Sawant said, "Caste discrimination doesn't only occur in other countries. 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." She also recently announced she would leave the council when her term expires at the end of the year.

Sawant stated, "We know that caste discrimination has been growing in the United States across many industries, including technology, construction, restaurants, and the service industry, and in domestic work. Caste discrimination is increasingly a grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias."

A survey by a US-based Dalit civil rights organization named Equality Labs in 2016 showed that one-quarter of the caste-oppressed people are subjected to physical and verbal assault. One-third of them face education discrimination, while two-thirds face discrimination in workplaces.

Sawant said that Washington, where Seattle is located, is the home to over 160,000 South Asians. Sawant added that the area's elected officials have the duty to address caste discrimination and not let it be "invisible" in the eyes of the local populace.

Several other South Asian organizations helped Sawant to draft the ordinance, including the Ambedkar Association of North America, Ambedkar International Centre, and the Ambedkar King Study Circle.

"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," Sawant said.

The current discrimination law of the city does not protect the victims who face harassment and mistreatment based on caste. However, it does protect against gender, race, or age discrimination.

"The fight for this legislation is also linked to the larger working-class fight against the ongoing brutal layoffs in the tech sector," said Sawant.

Sawant was proud of the various milestones the anti-caste movement in the U.S. could achieve.

This includes winning a case against the multinational technology firm Cisco. After a former employee alleged that his upper-caste managers discriminated against him based on his caste, the California state sued the software company.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is an organization founded in 1909 to abolish segregation among races in the U.S. In 2021, the same organization passed a resolution against caste practices in the country.

The Ambedkar International Center is laying the groundwork to raise awareness against caste discrimination and brought the attention of the institutions and elected representatives in the U.S. Activist Anil Wagde said that it became necessary after the Hindu nationalist organization Hindu American Foundation objected to the lawsuit. "Once HAF came into play, we felt we must stand up to that. Our arguments were simple. Caste discrimination is real. Caste is real," said Wadge.

"If you call it out explicitly in the law, at one go, all the companies are aware that there is a thing like this. They will talk about caste," the activist added. Wadge also claimed that the law would make it possible for the marginalized castes to take legal action against caste bias which was not viable back then in the U.S.

Reports show that upper-caste communities are unwilling to accept the fact that caste discrimination is quite real in the U.S. Last June, Equality Labs head and Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan was denied from delivering a speech at Google after the so-called upper-caste employees described her as an "anti-Hindu" in the mass emails they sent. Following the backlash, Tanuja Gupta, who invited Soundararajan, left her managerial position at Google.

The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents the employees of Google, has given its full support to Sawant's ordinance.

Sawant said at the press conference that the ordinance fights against multinational corporations that massively lay off workers based on caste discrimination. She said if the law is passed in Seattle, then "it will help inspire movements within India for working people to demand that American multinational corporations that are located in India also ban such discrimination. I think that really would be an enormous step forward."

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