Mar 27, 2023 - News

Seattle's caste discrimination law goes live

Illustration of a hand crossing out the caste system pyramid with a red X.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Seattle becomes the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to prohibit caste discrimination with legislation that goes into effect Monday.

Why it matters: While the ordinance directly impacts discrimination in housing, employment and public places in Seattle only, other jurisdictions with large South Asian workforces may follow suit, according to a legal analysis of the new law.

Background: With roots in Hinduism, the caste system — which assigns a person their lifelong social status at birth — is believed to be the world's longest-surviving social hierarchy, according to Human Rights Watch. Although it was officially banned in India, its influence persists.

  • With a growing South Asian population in the Seattle region, the new law allows those subject to such discrimination legal recourse, according to the bill's summary.

Zoom out: A similar measure introduced in the California Legislature last week could lead to the first statewide ban on such discrimination.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored Seattle's bill adding caste to the city's anti-discrimination laws, said in a news release that caste discrimination has become an increasingly grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias.

  • She cited data from Equality Labs that shows one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three faced workplace discrimination.

The other side: Opposition to the ordinance came from groups such as the Hindu American Foundation which said caste discrimination is already prohibited under U.S. law and that the new legislation suggests "a prevalent form of prejudice and malice" amongst people of Indian and South Asian descent.

Of note: The Seattle legislation cites 2020 U.S. Census data showing 167,000 people from the South Asian diaspora living in Washington, mostly in the Seattle area, and that it is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the city.

What they're saying: The new law is "a beacon to cities and states around the country and for working people elsewhere to build movements to also ban this horrific form of oppression," Sawant said in February.


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