The Seattle City Council added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination statutes on Tuesday, making Seattle the first American city and the first city outside of South Asia to approve such a law.
In the United States, populations of South Asian ancestry have become more vocal in their calls to abolish caste-based discrimination. Caste is a system of grouping individuals based on birth or descent. However, some Hindu Americans have been opposing the movement, claiming that the legislation unfairly targets their community.
Tuesday’s boisterous meeting at Seattle City Hall resulted in a 6-1 vote, with the majority of the council agreeing that caste discrimination transcends national and religious lines and that people who experience it in the US will be left without rights if there are no laws protecting them.
The crowded room exposed the significant contrasts over this topic within the South Asian diaspora as it was filled to capacity with activists from both sides carrying banners, chanting slogans, and questioning speakers and city officials as they made their views. The ordinance was supported by the vast majority of people in attendance, with opposition coming from a vociferous minority.
The chamber exploded into cheers of “Jai Bhim,” which means “success for Bhim,” when council members voted in support of the law. This is a rallying cry used by admirers of B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon whose real name was Bhimrao. Caste discrimination, according to Dalit organisations and those who support them, is pervasive in US diaspora communities and takes the form of social exclusion and prejudice in the housing, education, and tech industries, where South Asians play important roles.
Yogesh Mane, a resident of Seattle who was raised in India as an untouchable, sobbed when he heard the council’s decision.
I’m moved since this is the first time a law like this has been passed outside of South Asia, he remarked. “This is a historic occasion.”
The council vote was referred to as “a culture battle that has been won” by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, whose advocacy work continues to advance caste discrimination laws along with community partners.
Around 200 organizations from Seattle and across the nation supported us, she claimed. “It sends a strong message that Dalits are not the only ones. The South Asian community has come together to declare that we wish to get past the caste trauma.
The sole Indian American on the City Council and socialist Council Member Kshama Sawant said the law she drafted takes into account how caste discrimination transcends national and religious lines rather than targeting any particular minority. Sawant claimed that more than 4,000 emails in favor of the rule were sent to the council.
“Over the last two weeks, we’ve heard hundreds of heartbreaking experiences that have demonstrated to us that caste discrimination is very real in Seattle,” she stated.
The lone dissenting council member, Sara Nelson, concurred with opponents and referred to the legislation as “a reckless, damaging answer to an issue for which we have no data or research.”
She warned that this would lead to an increase in anti-Hindu prejudice and discourage firms from hiring South Asians. “The affected community is bitterly split on this topic,”
In response to Nelson’s comment that the ordinance will also drag the city into legal disputes, Sawant quipped, “Bring it on.” According to Sawant, avoiding lawsuits is not the best method to bring about advancement or change.
Councilwoman Lisa Herbold questioned the claim made by the law’s opponents that it unfairly targets Hindus and individuals of Indian origin.
She argued that declaring all men are singled out by laws against gender discrimination. And the fact that only a small portion of the population experiences caste discrimination doesn’t make it any less significant.
Coalition of Hindus of North America representative Shobha Swamy expressed her disappointment with the council’s discussions and line of questions. About 100 organizations reportedly showed their support for the group, according to the group.
Swami, who arrived by plane from Atlanta, claimed that “due diligence wasn’t done.”
A IT worker from the San Francisco Bay Area named C.H. Srikrishna expressed concern about the effects this ordinance would have on the South Asian population.
He added, “I also want discrimination to stop. Yet, we must first confirm the existence of pervasive discrimination.
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Hindu Srikrishna feels that his religion is specifically targeted by the regulation.
You are indirectly condemning Hinduism when you claim that it started 2,000 years ago, he said. “It irritates me. I feel cheated.
Sanjay Patel, the owner of a tech company in the Seattle area, claimed that he had never experienced caste-based prejudice while living in the US and that the legislation hurt him since it brought back memories of a system he believed to be extinct.
He remarked, “I worry that firms may be reluctant to hire South Asians as a result of this rule.
A number of activists lined up outside City Hall earlier on Tuesday morning in the chilly weather and blustery winds so they could address the council before the vote. Almost 300 people had asked to speak at the meeting both in person and remotely, but the council limited public comment. Prior to debates and the vote, they listened to around half of the remarks.
3,000 years ago, a social hierarchy based on occupation and birth gave rise to the caste system in India. It is a system that has developed through the years while being ruled by both Muslims and the Brits. The Dalits, or people at the bottom of the caste system, have continued to suffer. Since 1948, the year after the country’s independence from British rule, caste discrimination is illegal in India.
The Migration Policy Institute projects that the number of Americans living abroad increased from around 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021, making the US the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad. According to the organization South Asian Americans Leading Together, there are now approximately 5.4 million South Asians living in the US, an increase from the 3.5 million who were recorded in the 2010 census. The majority can trace their ancestry to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
Some college and university systems have taken action to forbid caste discrimination over the last three years.
In its nondiscrimination policy, Brandeis University in the Boston area became the first college in the US to mention caste in December 2019. Similar policies have been enacted by the University of California, Davis, Colby College, Brown University, and the California State University System. In accordance with the terms of its agreement with the graduate student union, Harvard University implemented caste protections for student workers in 2021.
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