It was reported in Reuters on Tuesday (21 Feb 2023) that Seattle has become the first U.S. city to outlaw caste discrimination after its local council voted to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.
The law prohibits caste discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas, and allows caste-oppressed people in the city to lodge complaints of discrimination. U.S. federal discrimination laws do ban ancestry discrimination but do not explicitly ban casteism at the moment.
The move will impact particularly the Indian and Hindu communities in Seattle which still hold on to their age-old caste value system and practise caste discrimination against others. The caste system is a social hierarchy that divides people into rigid categories at birth.
“Caste discrimination doesn’t only take place in other countries. 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,” said Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city council member who introduced the bill. She is an American of Indian descent.
Caste is especially relevant in Seattle, one of the U.S. largest tech hubs and home to major companies that employ large numbers of South Asian immigrants.
In the week leading up to the vote, several people testified in public comment hearings and letters to the city council about how caste has manifested in their workplaces and other settings in Seattle.
Councilor Sawant said she hoped that other cities across the country will follow Seattle’s example and institute similar measures.
Caste system follows South Asian migrants into U.S.
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India after its independence over 70 years ago, yet bias persists.
According to several studies in recent years, people from lower castes in India were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Even though India has banned untouchability, Dalits who are supposed to belong to the outcast group, still face widespread abuse across India, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.
The caste system dates back thousands of years with roots in Hinduism in India, though it also impacts other religions and countries. It separated the priest class, the highest level, from the warrior class, merchant class and laborer class, with the Dalits, known as “untouchables”, falling even below the caste system. The caste system grants many privileges to upper castes but represses lower castes.
In India, crimes against Dalits, who make up 17% of the country’s population, occurred every ten minutes in 2020.
As the South Asian diaspora has grown, anti-caste discrimination groups said caste prejudice has followed to the U.S., where activist groups like Equality Labs are pushing for an end to caste discrimination.
Equality Labs director Thenmozhi Soundararajan told The Washington Post her organization has received complaints from hundreds of workers alleging “caste slurs in workplaces, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, demotion to retaliation and even firing.”
In 2020, 30 Dalit women employed at Silicon Valley tech companies including Google and Apple published a statement alleging caste discrimination at work and an inability to report instances because caste was not a protected class.
The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents Google parent company Alphabet Inc. employees, has urged the company to explicitly ban caste discrimination.
In fact last year, Ms Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from a priest-caste family in India, to allow her to talk about caste equality in Google. But the talk was cancelled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias.
According to a survey conducted by Equality Labs, 67 per cent of Dalits living in the U.S. said they’ve experienced unfair treatment in their workplace, usually perpetrated by Indian immigrants of other castes.
California’s state government sues Cisco
In June 2020, Cisco and two of its former managers were sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, accusing it of discriminating against a Dalit engineer. The case is still pending.
The victim, a principal engineer at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters, is an American of Indian descent. His parents were immigrants from the Dalit class.
Like other large Silicon Valley employers, Cisco’s workforce includes thousands of Indian immigrants, most of whom were from the higher castes. Former Cisco engineering managers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, also defendants in the lawsuit, were accused of harassment for internally enforcing the caste hierarchy in Cisco against the victim.
When the victim reported Iyer to human resources for outing him as a Dalit to colleagues, Iyer allegedly retaliated. But Cisco determined caste discrimination was not illegal and did not take up the complaint. The harassment and discrimination against the victim continued. Cisco management then reassigned and isolated the employee, rejected a raise and career opportunities as well as denied two promotions against the victim, according to the lawsuit.
At the time, when the lawsuit surfaced, Cisco defended itself, “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all… we were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies.”
In any case, efforts to address caste discrimination have proliferated in Seattle and Silicon Valley, where there are many South Asian residents, including some who have alleged caste discrimination in the tech industry.