In a landmark move, the Seattle City Council has voted to prohibit caste-based discrimination, becoming the first U.S. city to do so. The new ordinance adds caste to the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws, which already include protections against discrimination based on disability, religion, and sexual orientation.The resounding chants of "Jai Bhim" filled the halls of the Council marking a watershed moment in history.
The historic move was spearheaded by Kshama Sawant, a socialist council member who introduced the legislation. Following the vote, Sawant tweeted her excitement, stating that the move marked a “historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination” and called for a movement to spread this victory around the country.
The caste system is a social hierarchy that assigns individuals a social status at birth based on their family’s position in society. While its roots lie in Hinduism, the caste system has spread to members of other religions in South Asia. The lowest caste in the social order, known as Dalits or “untouchables,” has faced severe discrimination in Indian society for centuries. Although India outlawed the practice of “untouchability” decades ago, discrimination based on caste remains prevalent in society and is prevalent among the South Asian diaspora community in the United States.
According to the Seattle city council, there are over 150,000 South Asians living in Washington state, with a significant number based in the Greater Seattle area. Many activists believe that members of this community have experienced discrimination in the workplace and in educational institutions based on their caste.
However, the ordinance has been met with opposition from some Hindu American groups who argue that the ban is unnecessary since U.S. law already prohibits such discrimination. In an open letter, the Hindu American Foundation stated that although they were against caste-based discrimination, the ordinance unfairly targets the entire community on the basis of their national origin and ancestry.
Despite the opposition, Sawant remains committed to the cause, stating that “caste discrimination doesn’t only take place 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.”
The Seattle ban on caste-based discrimination follows similar moves made by US universities in recent years. While caste discrimination was banned in India in 1948, it remains a prevalent issue, particularly for the Dalit community. With the US being the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, the Seattle City Council’s ordinance represents a significant step towards eradicating caste-based discrimination within the country.
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