There is a burgeoning anti-caste movement in the United States, fighting to expose the reality of caste-based discrimination in this country and win historic protections for caste-oppressed working people.
We are proud to be part of a movement that is fighting for legislation introduced by socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, member of Socialist Alternative, which would ban caste-based discrimination in the city. This would be a historic victory, making Seattle the first city in the United States to enact legal protections for caste-oppressed people.
Caste is a system of oppression that divides people into a hierarchy of birth-based, endogamous groups. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, an eminent jurist and social reformer, defined caste as a division of laborers based on birth and each caste arranged in hierarchical order with ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. It is a system with deep historical roots in South Asia, going back millennia. Caste discrimination occurs in the form of social segregation, targeted economic exclusion, physical and psychological abuse and violence.
While the caste system is not a well-known phenomenon in the United States, the deeply reactionary ideas behind it are not foreign to us.
The history of American capitalism reveals how racism against Black people was systematically developed by the wealthy elite to justify the horrors of slavery and the enormous profits it reaped for plantation owners. The ruling class used that brutally violent exploitation to build the foundations of the U.S. economy, which still today exploits the labor of Black people at staggering rates, generating billions in profits for the bosses. The exploitation, segregation and enslavement of Black people is the historical foundation for countless other forms of racist oppression — gentrification, racist housing policies like redlining and the ongoing murder of Black people by the police.
Similarly, the caste system was consciously and systematically developed by the ruling classes in South Asia and other parts of the world for thousands of years — and remains enforced by the ruling class today — to exploit ordinary people with a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Just as racism is not the result of “inevitable” racial friction between white and Black people, caste oppression has been maintained by the class structure of capitalist society in South Asia and now in the United States.
As movement leaders in our communities, we believe that our struggles are linked. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India, he was introduced as a “fellow untouchable.” Dr. King, who was shocked at first, upon later reflection, said, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” The fight against caste oppression is rooted in the fight against all oppression.
Renowned scholar and political activist Dr. Cornel West, in his letter urging the Seattle City Council to vote yes on Sawant’s legislation, said, “Learn the lesson from our shameful history of anti-blackness in the U.S. and do not repeat the failures of the past with my caste-oppressed kin.”
We agree with the Alphabet Workers Union, which represents more than a thousand Google workers, when they say that the “fight for the civil rights of caste-oppressed people is a workers’ fight.”
For millennia, caste apartheid has marginalized large percentages of the population in India and South Asia, denying oppressed communities access to education, segregating them, depriving them of access to public spaces, exploiting their labor and creating a notion of “impurity” about them. Caste is a fundamental fault line of South Asian society, and the rise of the right wing in India is in part a reaction to the increased assertion by caste-oppressed communities since the independence of India.
With the expatriation of our South Asian brothers and sisters to the United States, it is little wonder that we see expressions of caste-based discrimination among us. The distressing tale of illegal sex, labor and human trafficking of “lower caste” Indian girls to the U.S. from 1986 to 2000 in United States v. Lakireddy Bali Reddy, and the ongoing lawsuit against technology giant Cisco in California, are two vivid examples, cut across decades, of caste-based discrimination in the South Asian diaspora in the United States.
Caste discrimination is also faced by South Asian Americans right here in Seattle. A Real Change news article from 2022 explains that caste discrimination in Seattle “remains a largely hidden and unreported issue.” It is increasingly a grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias, including in the tech sector. Data from Equality Labs shows that one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination and two in three (67 percent) faced workplace discrimination.
If the Seattle City Council passes Sawant’s legislation, we will become the first city in the nation to outlaw caste discrimination, joining organizations like the NAACP, California State University and Brandeis University. A victory in Seattle would undoubtedly help ignite the growing movement to outlaw caste discrimination across the United States.
We urge all eight Democrats on the Seattle City Council to vote “Yes” on Sawant’s bill, and we encourage all those who support this struggle to join us at Seattle City Hall this Tuesday, Feb. 21 at noon, to rally and testify in public comment before the vote.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect a language change requested by the authors.
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Jeffrey Sr. has been a Senior Pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church since 1986. For more than four decades, he has fought the systematic displacement of Black working-class families from Seattle’s Central District, as part of an unrelenting fight against the racism, poverty, and inequality that stem from capitalist society. He was a leading activist in the movement that won the Amazon Tax in Seattle in 2020.
Mr. Ram Kumar is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology and a changemaker, based in Bay Area, California. He comes from a caste-oppressed background and is currently the President of Ambedkar International Center, USA that fights for human rights and against caste discrimination.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.