Seattle has become the first city in the United States—and the first place in the world outside South Asia—to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a centuries-old birth-based classification within the Hindu faith.
In a six-to-one vote on February 21, the Seattle City Council approved a resolution to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy.
The legislation was proposed by Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American economist and member of the Seattle City Council, who described the ban on caste-based discrimination as an “extraordinarily historic victory” for those marginalized and stigmatized in Hindu tradition as “untouchables.”
Sawant, who was raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin home in India, emigrated to the United States in the 1990s. She was 6 years old when she heard her grandfather—a man she “otherwise loved very much”—summon their lower-caste maid by uttering an ethnic slur, according to a February 20 article in Religion News Service. When Sawant questioned her grandfather, he responded that she “talked too much.”
Caste-based discrimination, Sawant alleges, occurs in some of the major technology companies in the U.S. that employ thousands of Indian software engineers. The discrimination, she says, runs the gamut from lower-caste employees being denied raises or promotions to getting negative reviews and being subjected to derogatory remarks from superiors.
In June 2020, the California Civil Rights Department sued Cisco Systems Inc., a major Silicon Valley tech company, for alleged caste discrimination against an unnamed Indian-American employee who was born a Dalit, a historically marginalized “untouchable” Hindu caste.
“So this is an absolutely earth-shattering victory because this is the first time outside South Asia that the law has decided that caste discrimination is not going to be invisible eyes, but instead it’s going to be codified in the law that it is illegal,” Sawant said.
Under the new law, employees who have reason to believe they have been discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of caste can sue the companies they work for, Sawant said.
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