Anti-caste discrimination legislation introduced for the first time in the United States

On 24 January, Kshama Sawant, a member of the city council in Seattle, in the United States, proposed a draft ordinance prohibiting caste discrimination. If approved by the city council, this ordinance will become the first such law against casteism in the US, and would set a critical precedent in recognising caste as an exclusionary system in a country with a vast Indian diaspora. 

In her statement proposing the legislation, Sawant noted that Washington, where Seattle is located, is home to more than one hundred and sixty-seven thousand South Asians. Sawant said that the region’s elected officials have a “political and moral obligation to address caste discrimination and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed.” The ordinance asks to ban caste discrimination in workplaces, housing as well as public spaces such as transport, hotels, public restrooms and retail establishments. 

Sawant stated, “We know that caste discrimination has been growing in the United States across many industries, including technology, construction, restaurants and the service industry, and in domestic work. Caste discrimination is increasingly a grave contributor to workplace discrimination and bias.” She cited a 2016 survey by Equality Labs, a US-based Dalit civil rights organisation, which helped draft the ordinance. The survey had shown that “one in four caste-oppressed people faced physical and verbal assault, one in three faced education discrimination, and two in three (sixty seven percent) faced workplace discrimination.” Other South Asian organisations that worked with Sawant to draft the ordinance include the Ambedkar International Centre, Ambedkar King Study Circle and the Ambedkar Association of North America.

In her statement, Sawant cited various milestones in the anti-caste movement in the US, including a recent case at the multinational technology firm Cisco. The state of California had sued the software company after a former employee raised allegations of caste discrimination against his upper-caste managers. In 2021, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organisation founded in 1909 for the abolition of racial segregation in the US, passed a resolution against caste practices in the country. 

The Ambedkar International Center, which is working to raise awareness about casteist practices before institutions and elected representatives in the US, had filed an amicus brief in the case against Cisco. Anil Wagde, an activist with the center, said that this became necessary after the Hindu American Foundation, a Hindu nationalist organisation affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, objected against the lawsuit. “Once HAF came into play, we felt we must stand up to that,” Wagde said. “Our arguments were simple. Caste discrimination is real. Caste is real.” 

Wagde said that the legislation proposed by Sawant would enable people from marginalised castes to take legal action in cases of caste bias, which has so far been near impossible anywhere in the US. “If you call it out explicitly in the law, at one go, all the companies are aware that there is a thing like this. They will talk about caste,” Wagde said. 

In September last year, the Ambedkar International Center had invited testimonies about caste discrimination and harassment from the South Asian diaspora in the US. Wagde recalled his own experience. He was invited to deliver a presentation on caste discrimination by a few employees of a prominent multinational manufacturing corporation as part of their event planning for the company’s diversity week. He did a run-through of his presentation with a team of employees, who politely heard him out, but was never called back to speak at the main event. He later learnt through his contacts in the company that an employee of Indian origin had strongly objected to any conversation on caste.

There have been reported instances of upper-caste communities strongly resisting the recognition of caste as a problem in the US. In June 2022, the tech giant Google cancelled a talk by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who heads Equality Labs, after the company’s upper-caste employees sent out mass emails describing her as “anti-Hindu.” Tanuja Gupta, who had invited Soundararajan, quit her managerial post at Google following the backlash. 

“The first defense that these people say is that caste doesn’t exist. Maybe the Brahmins and upper castes don’t experience caste. The victims experience it. The victims know the exclusion,” Wagde said. He added that Brahmins are commonly able to proclaim their caste identity with pride in the workplace and often make note of colleagues who do not participate in celebrations of Hindu festivals or are seen consuming meat, which are taken to be markers of lower-caste background. He recounted the experience of a friend, who faced leading questions by a colleague attempting to ascertain the friend’s caste. On one occasion, Wagde’s friend told him, the colleague tapped his friend on the shoulder—a common practice to ascertain whether a person is wearing a janeu, a thread worn by Brahmin men to mark their upper-caste status.

“Some of my Indian colleagues say, ‘I don’t want to work in a company where there are more Indians. Immediately, they want to find out your caste,’” Wagde said, adding that his friends prefer reporting to an American manager over someone of Indian origin. 

At the press conference, Sawant said that the ordinance was part of the larger fight by working people for social and economic justice amidst massive layoffs by multinational corporate companies. If the legislation is passed in Seattle, she said, “it will help inspire movements within India for working people to demand that American multinational corporations that are located in India also ban such discrimination. I think that really would be an enormous step forward.”