Seattle Has Banned Caste Discrimination, a First Outside South Asia

In Seattle, a bill advanced by socialist city council member Kshama Sawant has outlawed caste discrimination. She and Cornel West argue in Jacobin that the law is a victory against oppression.

Kshama Sawant and Seattle City Council passed the first law to ban caste-based discrimination in the nation. (Twitter / Kshama Sawant)

When a grassroots movement in Seattle won an ordinance banning caste-based discrimination on February 21, the city became the first jurisdiction outside South Asia to do so. The new law is a victory against oppression — and like all such victories, it required taking on right-wing opponents.

Caste is a system that divides people into a graded hierarchy of groups based on birth, with the “lower” groups facing serious discrimination and even violence. It originated in South Asia about two thousand years ago but remains pervasive under capitalism. Like other forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, caste oppression is an integral part of class-based societies that enshrine exploitation for the benefit of the few at the top.

Caste-oppressed workers in America have reported discrimination in the workplace ranging from denial of raises and promotions to being excluded from meetings and subjected to verbal indignities. Caste-oppressed community members also report denigration in educational institutions, social boycotts, and various forms of housing discrimination. Two separate statistical studies, one from Equality Labs and another conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have found significant evidence of caste-based discrimination in the United States.

Seattle’s experience shows that winning similar victories in other cities will require movements to boldly cut through the disingenuous arguments, obfuscation, and attacks by right-wing organizations, and make it clear to elected officials that the only progressive vote is a yes to banning caste discrimination.

Seattle’s ordinance was opposed by organizations like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), which made spurious allegations. One is that the new law targets Hindus and is anti-Hindu. This idea is false. The ordinance notes that caste discrimination exists in Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian South Asian communities. In supporting the ordinance, the Dalit Solidarity Forum said, “[Caste] is not just a Hindu issue but is very much alive in other religions, including among Indian Christians.” Further, Seattle’s antidiscrimination laws already bar discrimination on the basis of religion or national origin.

Most crucially, however, the pushback was eerily reminiscent of the Christian right’s contention that LGBTQ rights are anti-Christian and target their religious freedom. Seattle’s movement won because activists called out the right-wing talking points for what they are, rather than treating as legitimate a “right” to discriminate against others. Progressives stand for the freedom of religion, but not for using religion as an excuse to abuse others. As Sravya Tadepalli of Hindus for Human Rights said to the Seattle City Council, “I am a proud Hindu. . . . I urge you, as a Hindu, to vote yes on the bill to ban caste discrimination.”

Not surprisingly, both HAF and CoHNA have a Hindu fundamentalist agenda, closely aligned with the reactionary regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And the most prominent organization that opposed the ordinance was the Vishva Hindu Parishad, one of the most dangerous arms of the BJP, implicated in the 2002 killing of Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

The Hindu right wing also claims that caste is complicated and “invisible,” and that enforcement would be hard. However, caste discrimination is no more complicated than many other forms of oppression, and it’s not the only one without visible identifiers (see, for example, sexual orientation). In the same breath, the right wing asserts that no action need be taken on caste because discrimination based on ancestry or descent should supposedly be adequate. In reality, protections against caste-based discrimination are necessary because most often those who face it and those who perpetuate it are both South Asian, or of a common racial background. The Seattle law now forces the city to “acknowledge that there are stark differences of caste power and status within the South Asian American community that carry over from a long history and a continuing situation of inequality in South Asia,” as Harvard professor Ajantha Subramanian says.

Perhaps the most brazen allegation by the right wing is that acknowledgement of caste will divide South Asian American communities. This echoes statements from white supremacists who claim that discussing race and racism is divisive, not the fact of racism itself. Caste discrimination is, unfortunately, pervasive in America, just as racism and sexism still are. And just as claims of race blindness do not erase racism, claims of caste blindness do not erase caste oppression. In reality, such arguments are themselves an expression of the widespread discrimination facing people from oppressed castes.

In a powerful debunking of the allegations of divisiveness, the fight for Seattle’s law brought together nearly two hundred community and labor organizations, including the Alphabet Workers Union that represents Google workers. It united oppressed-caste working people alongside dominant-caste Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. They were joined by socialists and over four thousand American working people who signed a solidarity petition. On the day of the vote, the Seattle movement hosted activists from California, Ohio, Minnesota, Washington, DC, and even British Columbia, Canada.

A fighting strategy that won over working people by explaining what was at stake, and clarified the real objectives of the right wing, was decisive to winning the new law. This was especially true when Seattle City Council Democrats initially repeated some of the right-wing claims, and the movement had to hold the councilmembers accountable to oppressed people.

Seattle’s new law is a victory against caste oppression and against the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist movement. We need to build on this powerful step forward. We believe, as did Bhimrao Ambedkar, India’s foremost fighter against caste oppression, that caste has to be annihilated. This will require a challenge to capitalism, since capitalism nourishes inequality in all its forms by consolidating wealth and power in the hands of a small elite. As Malcolm X said, “You cannot have capitalism without racism,” which we believe is true of all forms of oppression.