On Feb. 21, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting caste-based discrimination in the city, becoming the first municipality in North America to do so. The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was approved by a veto-proof majority of 6 to 1, with two councilmembers absent and Councilmember Sara Nelson opposed.
The Ambedkar International Center, an anti-caste organization, celebrated the victory as “historic,” writing that the decision will have far-reaching consequences for the movement for caste equity.
Caste is a system of social segregation and stratification sanctioned by law, custom or religion. In South Asia, the practice has been outlawed for decades, but rampant discrimination remains. Caste-oppressed people say that discriminatory behavior and attitudes have spread to South Asian diaspora communities in Seattle and elsewhere.
The new bill will allow the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) to investigate complaints of discrimination based on caste in housing, the workplace and other social settings. Previously, Real Change reported that if the SOCR received a complaint solely based on caste discrimination, it may not be able to take action because the city did not recognize caste as a protected class.
Ahead of the meeting, anti-caste activists gathered at City Hall to rally in support of the ordinance. A vocal minority of counter protestors who opposed the law also attended the protest and meeting.
Hundreds of community members signed up to give public comment at the meeting, with a majority testifying in favor of the bill. Many shared emotional testimonies of experiencing caste discrimination and exclusion.
Among the detractors, a common concern was that the proposed ordinance would target Hindus. Some also minimized or questioned the experience of caste-oppressed people.
Sawant refuted these claims, saying that the bill would outlaw instances of caste discrimination regardless of religion and that the opponents harbored rightwing reactionary views.
Council central staff said that SOCR will need to identify more resources for outreach and enforcement in order to fully implement the ordinance. The bill now awaits Mayor Bruce Harrell’s signature
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Feb. 22-28, 2023 issue.