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Seattle has become the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination on Tuesday, after its local council voted to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

The move addresses an issue important to the area’s South Asian diaspora, particularly the Indian and Hindu communities. India‘s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of rigid social stratification.

‘The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression,’ Kshama Sawant, an Indian American Seattle City Council member, said.

The caste system dates back thousands of years and allows many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes. The Dalit community is on the lowest rung of the Indian Hindu caste system and have been treated as ‘untouchables.’

‘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,’ Sawant said when her office introduced the proposal to ban caste-based discrimination in Seattle.

Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks to supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws at a rally at Seattle City Hall

Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks to supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle’s anti-discrimination laws at a rally at Seattle City Hall

Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.

Even though India has banned untouchability, Dalits still face widespread abuse across that country, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.

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Debate over the caste system’s hierarchy is contentious in India and abroad, with the issue intertwined with religion. Some people say discrimination is now rare. Indian government policies reserving seats for lower-caste students at top Indian universities have helped many land tech jobs in the West in recent years.

Activists opposing caste discrimination say it is no different from other forms of discrimination like racism and hence should be outlawed. U.S. discrimination laws ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism.

Tensions within the community were visible at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday, as a noisy hearing culminated with a 6-1 vote with a majority of the council agreeing that caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries.

Without such laws, those facing caste discrimination in the U.S. will have no legal rights or protections, they agreed. 

The packed room, which overflowed with activists from both sides bearing banners, chanting slogans, challenging speakers and city officials as they made their comments, laid bare stark divisions over this issue within the South Asian diaspora.

A majority of those present in council chambers were supporters of the ordinance and those opposed were a vocal minority.

As council members voted in favor of the ordinance, the chamber erupted into cheers of ‘Jai Bhim,’ which means ‘victory for Bhim’ a rallying cry adopted by followers of B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon whose given name was Bhimrao. 

Dalit groups and their supporters say caste discrimination is prevalent in U.S. diaspora communities, manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.

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Yogesh Mane, a Seattle resident who grew up as an untouchable in India, broke into tears as he heard the council’s decision.

‘I’m emotional because this is the first time such an ordinance has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia,’ he said. ‘It’s a historic moment and a powerful feeling when the law allows us to speak up about things that are wrong.’

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, whose advocacy work along with community partners continues to push caste discrimination laws forward, called the council vote ‘a culture war that has been won.’

‘We got the support of over 200 organizations from Seattle and around the country,’ she said. ‘It’s a powerful message that Dalit people are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste.’

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