In late February, Seattle became the first city to ban caste discrimination by adding caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws (OPB). Spurred by the work of South Asian activists and community members, the city council voted 6-1 to add protections for those affected by caste discrimination. This decision aligns with growing initiatives to ban caste discrimination as part of broader racial and social equity initiatives. Some colleges, including Harvard University, Brandeis University, the California State University System, Colby College, Brown University, and the University of California, Davis, have implemented similar policies to protect students and staff (NPR). Kshama Sawant, the Seattle City Council’s only Indian American member, celebrated the win, stating that “the fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression” (Reuters).
• Read “Trauma of Caste” by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson to understand how caste affects communities around the globe.
• Donate to Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance.
• Read how you can address caste discrimination in the workplace through this article by Simran Jeet Singh and Aarti Shyamsunder.
• Consider: how many perceptions of caste affect members of your workplace? Your school or your child’s school?
Caste is a system of social hierarchy in India that dates back over 3,000 years and assigns purity or status to specific groups of people. The concept divides Hindu society across four classes known as the “varnas”: the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants), and the Shudras (laborers). Those that don’t align with these four classes are considered “untouchables,” or Dalits, which means “broken” in Sanskrit (Time). These castes assign default opportunities for upward mobility for people within them. India banned caste discrimination in 1948, but the practice persists in many aspects of Hindu religious and social life.
“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranks apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents
Caste affects more than one billion people worldwide, including the 5.4 million South Asians in the United States (Harvard Business Review). A 2020 study of Indian Americans found that roughly half of the Hindu respondents identified with a caste group. Newly-arrived Hindus in the U.S. were just as likely to identify with a caste group as those in the country for over 25 years (Carnegie Endowment Center for Peace).
And caste discrimination can be knowingly or unknowingly practiced in the community, exposing members of the Dalit community to physical or verbal assault, decreased work opportunities, and exploitative labor practices. Meanwhile, members of the more dominant castes may experience more opportunities and favorable treatment than others (Time). A study from Equality Labs found that two-thirds of Dalits have faced discrimination in their U.S. workplace (Equality Labs). You can read more specific examples of this type of discrimination in the LA Times.
The tech community has particularly seen caste discrimination thrive, which is why it’s so important that a city like Seattle, with both a strong Indian American immigrant community and powerful tech company headquarters, chose to acknowledge it. Author and activist Thenmozhi Soundararaja was slated to give a talk at Google about caste discrimination. But, after “upper-caste” employees complained that her views on caste were anti-Hindu, her talk was canceled. This caused many to question Google’s commitment to DEI and urge more companies to hold themselves accountable for addressing the issue (Harvard Business Review). Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have started moderating caste-based hate speech on their platforms. Dell, Apple, and Amazon now include caste proficiency in some employee manuals and training (NBC News).
• In late February, Seattle became the first city to ban caste discrimination, adding caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws.
• Caste is a system of social hierarchy in India that dates back over 3,000 years and assigns purity or status to specific groups of people.
• In the U.S., people still experience caste discrimination, particularly in the workforce, and activists are rallying for more cities, states, and companies to provide education and policies around the issue.