Seattle last month imposed a ban on caste discrimination, becoming the first US city to take this decision which might prove historic for South Asian Americans.
A local council voted to add caste to the city's anti-discrimination laws. The move addresses an issue important to the area's South Asian diaspora, particularly the Indian and Hindu communities.
India's caste system is among the world's oldest forms of rigid social stratification.
"The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression," Kshama Sawant, the only Indian-American Seattle City Council member, said.
What is the caste discrimination law?
According to supporters of the ordinance passed by a 6-1 vote on Tuesday, caste prejudice transcends national and religious lines, and without such regulations, those who experience caste discrimination in the US won't have any rights.
Particularly among the nation's South Asian diaspora, the ordinance is a divisive topic. Proponents claim that it is necessary because caste is not protected by current civil rights laws. Groups opposing the measure say it will malign a community that is already the target of prejudice.
“The legislation will prohibit businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages.
"It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments.
"The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans,” said Sawant in a statement before the bill was passed into law.
The law defines caste as “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion”, according to a document on the Seattle Council’s website.
Caste system outlawed in India
Caste discrimination was outlawed in India over 70 years ago, yet bias persists, according to several studies in recent years, including one that found people from lower castes were underrepresented in higher-paying jobs.
Even though India has banned untouchability, Dalits still face widespread abuse across that country, where their attempts at upward social mobility have at times been violently put down.
Dalit activists and academics say such recognition is needed in the West too, especially in the US. Many of them have been working for years towards spreading a similar awareness of caste and its complexities there.
That's why, they say, Seattle adding caste to its anti-discrimination laws is a landmark event.
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