On February 24th, Seattle became the first US city to ban caste discrimination by approving an ordinance that amends the city’s municipal code to include caste as a protected class, alongside categories such as race, religion and gender identity. The law prohibits caste discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other arenas, and allows caste-oppressed people in the city to lodge complaints of discrimination.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant lead this historic legislation alongwith other South Asian and community leaders.
She released the following statement:
“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. That’s why my office is proud to bring forward first-in-the-nation legislation for our city to ban caste-based discrimination, in solidarity with our South Asian and other immigrant community members, and all working people.
“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.
The Seattle City Council approved the ordinance 6-1. Scores of people across race, religion and caste backgrounds registered to speak during the public comment period on Tuesday, with an overwhelming majority supporting the legislation. Supporters included dominant and oppressed caste workers, union members, progressive political organizers, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, among others.
“This was a win centuries in the making and it was really the fruition of many years of organizing in Seattle across racial and gender and worker lines,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of the Dalit advocacy organization Equality Labs. “It’s also proof that the South Asian community wants to heal from caste.”
Sawant was born in Mumbai and raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household before moving to the United States from India.
“The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression,” Sawant said.
Kshama Sawant was born to H. T. and Vasundhara Ramanujam into a middle-class Tamil family in the city of Pune, India. Sawant was raised mostly in Mumbai. Her mother is a retired principal and her father, a civil engineer, was killed by a drunk driver when she was 13 years old. Sawant has indicated that the genesis of her becoming a socialist began in India, a country plagued by immense poverty. This development was furthered when she arrived in the United States, which she describes as “the wealthiest country in the history of humanity”, and was surprised to encounter poverty and homelessness.[