Seattle City Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday in favor of banning caste-based discrimination. Photo courtesy of Seattle City Councilmember Ksama Sawant/ Twitter
Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Seattle City Council has voted to ban discrimination based on caste, becoming the first in the United States to recognize the class structure as a protected class.
The council passed the ban in a 6-1 vote on Tuesday.
BREAKING: The Seattle City Council has passed first-in-the-nation legislation to protect people from discrimination based on their caste. The ordinance was sponsored by @cmkshama.— Seattle City Council (@SeattleCouncil) February 22, 2023
"It's official: Our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle," tweeted Kshama Sawant, the councilmember who introduced the legislation. "Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country."
The caste system, founded in Hinduism, is a rigid, oppressive class structure that is determined by one's birth and is passed down through the generations.
Of the four main caste groups, Dalits, who were commonly known as untouchables, are at the bottom of this system, followed Vaishyas and Kshatriyas with Brahmins at the top.
A 2016 report by Equality Labs, a Dalits civil rights organization that fights caste discrimination, found that despite living in the United States, members of the Dalits caste continue to experience discrimination based on this system, including 60% of respondents stating they have been treated unfairly in their workplace due to their social standing.
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Sawant introduced the legislation to ban caste-based discrimination in employment, housing and education last month in solidarity with Seattle's South Asian population.
The ban extends to places of public accommodations and spaces, such as hotels, public transportation, restrooms and retail establishments.
"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 in a statement announcing the measure.
"With over 167,000 people from South Asia living in Washington, largely concentrated in the Greater Seattle area, the region must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed."
Karthikeyan Shanmugam, secretary of the Ambedkar King Study Circle, which fights various forms of oppression, including the caste system, said those oppressed under this social structure fear their identity being outed, which leads to social exclusion as well as a desire for retribution.
"It is a specter that casts a dark shadow on their dreams and dampens their hopes," Shanmugam said in a statement. "This ordinance will help the oppressed unshackle their dreams, unleash their talents and live up to their full potential.
"The whole world stands to benefit from this blossoming of talent previously stifled."
However, not everyone was in support of the measure, with the Coalition of Hindus of North America characterizing the ban as an attack of the Hindu religion.
"This ordinance peddles bigotry and singles out the South Asian community by using racist, colonial tropes of 'caste' and ensures that our community is subject to special scrutiny, thus denying our rights to freedom of religion and equal protection," it said in a letter urging council to vote down the ban.
The Hindu American Foundation similarly accused the ordinance as "singling out" South Asians in violation of the very policies it attempts to amend.
"Seattle has taken a dangerous misstep here, institutionalizing bias against all residents of Indian and South Asian origin, in in the name of preventing bias," HAF Managing Director Samir Kalra said in a statement.
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