Seattle is official first city to pass a law recognizing and prohibiting caste-based discrimination. Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant has been at the forefront of advocating anti-caste legislation and proposed the Prohibition of Caste-Based Discrimination Ordinance, which passed by a 6-1 majority on 21 February.
The caste system is one hierarchical segregation method that the Hindu community was broken into. It has five strata (castes) that separated Hindus based on their nobility and privilege and dictated what jobs they could work, who they could socialize with, and who they could marry. While caste discrimination was legally abolished in India in 1950, ccaste segregation is still prevalent in social perceptions today.
Nalini Iyer, an English professor at Seattle University, acknowledged the privilege she has experienced as a result of coming from an upper-caste background and discussed how caste-based discrimination can manifest in the modern career sphere.
“[Workers from lower-caste lineage] experience discrimination in the form of not being invited to important projects or experience microaggressions. By not being allowed to socialize, career development is also hindered, Iyer said.
The new regulation recognizes caste as a justifiable class and offers anti-discrimination protection in the workplace under the same umbrella as race and religion.
In response to the historic passage of the anti-caste ordinance, Sawant discussed the message she believes it sends to conservative Hindu communities that support maintaining the caste system.
“The reason it is such a historic victory is that it goes head-to-head with Hindu right-wing extremists.” Sawant said in a speech.
Iyer echoed Sawant’s stance on the seriousness of this new law and the implications it has on individuals affected by caste-based discrimination.
“It’s a very historic, very important thing,” Iyer said. “It gives those who were discriminated an opportunity for legal confidence and to create a profile form of compliance with human rights and the relevant departments. It also raises awareness among the non-separation communities that this is a vector of oppression that they need to take into account.”
Seattle U honors students were given the opportunity to participate in discussions on caste-based discrimination, on 23 February. Isabel Wilkerson, author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a New York Times bestseller that explored the caste system’s lingering impact on the modern lives of South Asian people. Avery Segall, an English and gender studies double major, was one of the students who attended the event.
“Racism exists not only on the basis of skin color, but is also embedded in the hierarchies and systems that maintain it, thus creating a caste system,” Segall wrote to The Spectator. “By seeing it as a caste system, we can better work to dismantle the institutionalized racism that is so prominent in the United States.”
Allison Wasley, a sophomore English major, left the event with a newfound understanding of how the caste system permeates American society.
“[Wilkerson] focused on the history of racial oppression and its lasting effects on society through the metaphor of an old, dilapidated house that we did not build but are nevertheless responsible for repairing,” Wasley wrote to The Spectator. “[Wilkerson] also emphasized that the core issue of these systems lies within their hierarchical structure; the creation of these categorical divisions on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. is at the root of the problem.”
While the passage of the ordinance has been cause for celebration among certain individuals, it has also been the catalyst for intense backlash and criticism. Arguments continue to be made that this Act seeks to defame the Hindu community by promoting a colonized image of the caste system and targeting an already vulnerable society.
Iyer discussed her irritation at the negative reactions to the ordinance, believing them to be a direct result of enduring caste-based ideologies.
“This [response] is fragility. To me, this is exactly how caste discrimination manifests itself in the United States. They say that caste discrimination does not exist. So why do you care? If caste isn’t a problem, so what if [this ordinance] protecting people?” Iyer said.
Despite the polarizing nature of this law’s passage, Iyer remains steadfast in his belief that this law will set a precedent across the United States and hopes that courageous political figures will continue to speak out against caste-based discrimination.
“In the freedom of the oppressed peoples lies the freedom of all,” Iyer said.