Ethnic Media Services
Following 90 minutes of public comments from passionate speakers on both sides of the issue, the Seattle, Washington City Council Feb. 21 made history as it passed the first law in the nation banning caste discrimination.
The measure passed on a 6-1 vote, with Council President Deborah Juarez abstaining. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell must now sign off on the resolution.
The Council chamber was filled with people waving signs and shouting over council members as they spoke. Seattle City Council President pro-tempore Tammy Morales asked the audience three times to refrain from protesting, threatening once to clear the chamber until the vote was taken.
The resolution, CB 120511 — sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant — adds caste as a protected class to the city’s existing municipal code. Seattle currently has one of the broadest codes on protected classes.
‘Discrimination is Real’
“I grew up in a Brahmin family, so I never experienced caste discrimination, unlike so many of my South Asian brothers and sisters,” said Sawant, speaking before the vote was taken. “But I want to live in a society free of oppression. Let’s be clear: caste discrimination is here in Seattle. It is real, and existing law does not protect people.”
“I hope we can serve as a beacon to other cities across the country and around the world,” said Sawant, who identifies as a socialist. She noted that the measure had received suppport from numerous organizations, and from writers Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, and Cornel West. Ahead of the city council meeting, supporters held a noon rally to draw attention to the issue. People opposing the measure also showed up at the rally, which threatened to get violent at points, but was contained.
The lone dissenter was city council member Sara Nelson, who said that existing protections, which include ancestry, protect people from caste discrimination. “This is reckless and unnecessary,” she said, adding that the city council had not been provided with any data on the extent of caste-based discrimination in the region.
“The caste system was abolished in India in 1950. I’m not saying caste discrimination does not exist, just that we have no data,” said Nelson.
“This resolution exposes Indians to racist stereotypes and could generate more discrimination against the community, including employers simply not hiring South Asians because of potential concerns,” said the city council woman.
Seattle is a tech hub, with many workers and employers of Indian origin. Supporters of the resolution say that Dalits — once referred to as untouchables — face discrimination at the workplace by other Indian Americans and are often denied raises and promotions because of their caste affiliation.
Many who spoke during the public comment period said they have had to hide their identity at the workplace. Sawant likened it to discrimination against the LGBTQIA community, who often remain closeted at their places of work.
Council member Lisa Herbold added an amendment to the resolution, which would require the city to document the stories of Dalits who say they have faced discrimination. The amendment also passed.
“Caste discrimination transcends religious and geographic boundaries. This resolution does not single out Hindus,” said Herbold, responding to Nelson’s comments.
Seattle city council legislative analyst Asha Venkataraman told council members that $185,000 would have to be added to the City’s budget to support one full time employee who would liaise with local businesses to inform them about the resolution. An additional $100,000 would be needed for the city to update existing outreach materials. The funds would be made available next year.
‘Politics Over Principles’
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, which opposed the measure, told Ethnic Media Services she was deeply disappointed. “Politics won over principles,” she said. “There were hateful and false stereotypes that this proposal was based upon.”
Shukla said that HAF is exploring all legal avenues, including a possible lawsuit against the city. “It is unconstitutional to target a single ethnic group,” she said, noting the impact the resolution will have on Hindu Americans potentially being painted as racists. “Sawant has unleashed a torrent of hatred towards a minority community.”
Themozhi Soundararajan, co-founder of Equality Labs, which organized support for the resolution, told Ethnic Media Services: “Love has won over hate as Seattle becomes the first city in the nation to ban caste discrimination. Thank you to the 200 organizations who stood with us.”
“We are united as South Asian Americans in our commitment to heal from caste oppression. First Seattle, then the nation,” said Soundararajan, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area.