Respect Equality

Seattle becomes first city to outlaw caste discrimination

Indian-American Councilmember Kshama Sawant sponsored an ordinance adding caste to the city's anti-discrimination laws.

Story at a glance

  • Seattle has become the first city to add caste to its anti-discrimination laws.

  • India’s caste system officially ended in 1948, but the shadow of the social hierarchy still exists today in the country and in the South Asian diaspora.

  • The Dalits, once referred to as the “untouchables,” lay at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Seattle is now the first city in the United States to officially ban discrimination based on caste after lawmakers voted Tuesday to pass an ordinance adding caste to the city’s existing anti-discrimination laws.  

The city council voted 6-1 for the change.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the ordinance, said she proposed the legislation to stop an “invisible and unaddressed” form of discrimination.  

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“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries,” said Sawant. “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.”

India’s caste system was officially abolished in the late 1940s, but the 3,000-year-old social hierarchy still exists in some form today with Dalits, once known as the “untouchables,” laying at the bottom.  

The shadow of the centuries-old hierarchy has found its way to the United States, which is home to 2.7 million Indian immigrants and 5.4 million people with roots across South Asia, according to the Migration Policy Institute.  

While there is limited research on caste discrimination in the U.S., one 2016 study by Equity Labs found that 25 percent of Dalits in the U.S. reported suffering from verbal or physical assault.  

The study also found that 2 out of 3 Dalits in the country reported being treated unfairly in the workplace, and 1 out of 3 Dalit students reported being discriminated against at some point during their education.  

Some colleges and universities have taken steps to help address caste discrimination on their campuses. The California State University System updated its discrimination policy to include caste early last year making it the first university system in the country to do so, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Brown University followed suit and became the first Ivy League school to ban discrimination based on caste in December 2022 in part due to the advocacy work of South Asian students.  

“Our nondiscrimination policies exist to ensure we’re protecting people and to ensure the University environment is free of hurt and harm,” said Brown Corporation’s Vice President of Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler after the changes were adopted.   

“We have a long-standing commitment to this work, and it is engrained into the fabric of who we are.” 

The nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service called caste-based discrimination “a pervasive, worldwide issue” and urged a vote in favor of the ordinance.

Julia Mueller contributed to this report.