Ban Caste Discrimination in the City of Seattle

The City of Seattle will be voting on February 21, 2023 on a first-of-its-kind ordinance in the United States to add caste as a protected class in the city’s anti-discrimination framework, joining certain universities, organizations, and companies who have also started recognizing the existence and extent of caste oppression in the US. This ordinance is sponsored by Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and was announced on January 24th, 2023 at a press conference.

Caste-based discrimination is a real and growing problem in Seattle and King County, especially the tech industry. Real Change News has a good overview of the need for the ordinance, with quotes from local residents.

Please email Seattle City Council and ask them to VOTE YES! Let’s be part of history and make Seattle the first, but certainly not the last, city to ban discrimination based on caste!

CLICK HERE to send a pre-drafted email to the Seattle City Council – make sure to fill in your name and city at the bottom.

Critical Action : Be There In Person on Tue, February 21 at 12 noon

If you’re in Seattle, show up in person on Tuesday, February 21 for a rally at 12 noon at City Hall and at 2PM to make public comments in person. Please also sign up earlier at 12PM to make public comments at 2PM.

If you’re going to be attending in person, please fill out the form here to let the organizers on the ground know.

If you can’t join in person at City Hall, you can still give remote public comment at 2 PM by signing up online starting at 12 PM.

Read the Strong Endorsement Letter Sent and Signed By 140+ Organizations 

140+ organizations have signed on to a comprehensive letter in strong support of the Seattle ordinance to ban caste-based discrimination! It includes quotes, powerful testimonies, support statements from individual constituents, organizations, advocacy collectives, renowned public intellectuals, and academics speaking in support of the letter.

See here for the endorsement statement and incredible list of organizations seeking to end caste oppression through this Seattle ordinance.

More About Caste Discrimination & The Ordinance

The caste system is unfortunately practiced by many from the South Asian American community including in our own local communities and it transcends across different religious beliefs. Caste is a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy (completely closed categories), and social barriers based on birth and descent.  Caste discrimination occurs in the form of social segregation, economic deprivation, physical and psychological abuse, and even violence.  It also manifests in employment, education, and housing, and has been growing in the United States across many industries, including technology, construction, restaurants and the service industry, and in domestic work.

If approved by the City Council, the ordinance will ban caste-based discrimination in our city. The legislation will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages. It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.

In the past couple weeks, thousands of emails have been sent to the city council by citizens in favor of this ordinance and multiple well-known academics (some speaking in individual capacity), public intellectuals have all rallied to support this ordinance by making public statements on social media, and emailing their supportive statement to the city council. Additionally, hundreds of caste oppressed South Asian Americans have given moving testimonies of facing inhuman casteism in our own local communities as public comments to the Seattle City Council (recordings of which are available on the Seattle City Council page).  Multiple news outlets locally, nationally and internationally have covered this proposed ordinance positively wanting a ban on caste discrimination. Also, numerous peace/interfaith/justice orgs have been rallying with strong endorsement asking the Seattle City Council to pass this ordinance.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is caste?

Caste is a system of oppression that divides people into a rigid hierarchy of groups based on birth, with the lower groups facing serious discrimination, oppression, and even violence. It originates from about two thousand years ago in South Asia, but remains pervasive today under capitalism. In addition to South Asia, similarly affected groups are also found in or originate from elsewhere in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific region, and various diaspora communities. Like other forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, caste oppression is an outgrowth of class-based societies that enshrine the exploitation of the majority for the benefit of the few at the top.

What does “Dalit” mean?

Many oppressed-caste people who are victims of the heinous caste discrimination practice of  untouchability prefer to be referred to by the self-chosen identity of “Dalits,” which means “those who have been broken but are resilient.”

Like the Black and other marginalized communities in the United States, Dalits have been struggling with the challenges of social segregation, perception of inferiority and stereotyping and just blatant discrimination. While many may see Black freedom struggles in the United States as a local phenomenon, their global reverberations have always been felt. In fact, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited a local school for Dalit children in the southern Indian state of Kerala in 1959, the principal introduced him thus: “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” Although Dr. King was initially shocked by this introduction, he later understood the deeper connections of oppression, exclusion and exile that Blacks in the US and Dalits in India shared.

It must also be said that Dr. King was closer in ideology to India’s greatest leader Dr. B R Ambedkar, even though they did not meet each other.Dr. Ambedkar was a polyglot- an extraordinary jurist, an economist, a feminist who supported the rights of women, a politician of eminence who stood for labor rights, and a tireless social reformer. Born as a Dalit, he inspired the Dalit Buddhist Movement and campaigned against social discrimination against Dalits. He was independent India’s first law minister, and he is widely known as the principal architect of the Constitution of India.

Dr. Ambedkar said “Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can affect people”. They both had similar ideas about social justice and political empowerment of disenfranchised minority communities. And there is that deep shared legacy of Black Civil Rights and Indian Dalit anti-caste movements via the Black and Dalit Panther solidarity.

If the caste system originated in South Asia, why are we talking about it in the United States? Is caste discrimination happening in the United States? 

Yes, caste discrimination is a very serious issue in the United States. Dalit community members from South Asia and other oppressed-caste immigrant community members often face discrimination, especially in the workplace, including in the tech sector.

The State of Washington is home to more than 167,000 people from the South Asian diaspora largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area. A 2022 news article noted, “Seattle is one of the cities where caste discrimination “remains a largely hidden and unreported issue.” The same article quotes a spokesperson from the City of Seattle Office of Civil Rights, who wrote that “Caste Status is not a recognized protected class in the City of Seattle and if our office were to receive a complaint based solely on caste discrimination, we would not be able to investigate it…”

The short answer is that there is now a growing anti-caste movement in America that is calling attention to this issue, and rightly so. Local groups like Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans work closely with local chapters of Dalit-led anti-caste groups such as the Ambedkar Association of North America, the Ambedkar International Center, the Ambedkar King Study Circle and Equality Labs (they’re all in the tradition of Dr. Ambedkar, the main author of the Indian constitution and the world’s best known anti-caste activist.) These Dalit-led anti-caste groups have won significant victories. Many US universities, civil rights organizations, workers’ unions, even corporations, et al recognize caste and have added it to their respective non-discriminatory policies. Brandeis University, California State University (CSU at all 23 campuses), Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers (HGSU-UAW), Brown University, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), and the California Democratic Party are some of the names in the growing list of institutions that have endorsed caste equity and added caste to their non-discriminatory policies. In 2020, companies like Apple & Amazon updated their employee conduct policy to explicitly prohibit caste discrimination. The category was added alongside race, religion, gender, age, and ancestry.

For the ordinance, the coalition also includes human rights and non-profit organizations such as Amnesty International, tech workers, thousands of members from diverse coalition of groups representing Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Ravidasias, Atheists & Agnostics, Ambedkarites, Dalits, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), immigrants & refugees, union members, justice/peace organizations, inter-faith coalitions, socialists, and local service providers like API Chaya. The ordinance is sponsored by Seattle City Councilmember and Socialist Alternative member, Kshama Sawant. Socialist Alternative has previously helped win landmark victories such as increasing the minimum wage in Seattle, winning a tax on Amazon and other big businesses, and a series of landmark laws for renters’ rights.

The nature of the coalition, which continues to grow, is perhaps the best indicator of (a) the strength of the anti-caste movement, and (b) the fact that the fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected with the fight against other forms of oppression. As the Alphabet Workers’ Union—the union of Google workers—said in a statement, the “fight for the civil rights of caste-oppressed people is a workers’ fight.”

The legislation introduced by Councilmember Sawant will ensure that “caste” is explicitly enshrined as a prohibited basis of discrimination and necessary protections are in place in Seattle for caste-oppressed South Asian residents, workers, and visitors, who, at present, do not have adequate legal remedies.  

Specifically, the legislation will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages.  It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments.  The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans. 

These protections will bring visibility to, and address, the “hidden and unreported issue” of caste discrimination in our city.  

News Coverage