The Seattle City Council on Tuesday added to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first US city to ban caste discrimination and the first city in the world to pass such a law outside of South Asia.
Calls to outlaw caste discrimination, which is the division of people based on birth or descent, have intensified among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States. But the movement has met opposition from some American Hindus who argue that such legislation offends a particular community.
Tensions within the community were evident at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday as a turbulent hearing resulted in a 6-1 vote with a majority of council members agreeing that class discrimination transcends national and religious borders and that without such laws, those facing class discrimination in the states would not have legal rights or protections in the United States.
The room crowded with activists on both sides, holding banners, chanting slogans and challenging speakers and city officials as they made their comments, has led to sharp divisions on the issue within the South Asian diaspora. The majority of those present in the council chamber supported the decree and the opponents were in a vocal minority.
When the assembly members voted in favor of the ordinance, the hall erupted in chants of “Jai Bhim”, meaning “Victory of Bhim”, a rallying cry adopted by the supporters of the B groups. Dalits and their supporters claim that caste discrimination is pervasive in American diaspora communities, manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education, and the technology sector where South Asians play a major role.
Yogesh Mani, a native of Seattle who grew up in untouched India, burst into tears when he heard the council’s decision.
“I am touched because this is the first time such a law has been passed in the world outside of South Asia,” he said. “It’s a historic moment and a strong feeling when the law allows us to talk about the wrong things.”
Thenmozhi Soundarajan, CEO of Equality Labs in Oakland, California, whose advocacy work with community partners continues to advance caste discrimination laws, called the board’s vote “the culture war won.”
“We have support from over 200 organizations in Seattle and across the country,” she said. It is a powerful message that Dalits are not alone. The South Asian community has been united in saying that we want to recover from class shocks. »
Councilwoman Keshama Sawant, the only socialist and Native American on the city council, said the ordinance, which she proposed, does not define a single community, but rather explains how caste discrimination transcends national and religious borders. Sawant said the council has received more than 4,000 emails in support of the order.
“We’ve heard hundreds of heartbreaking stories over the past few weeks showing how real class discrimination is in Seattle,” she said.
Chancellor Sarah Nelson, who cast the only dissenting vote, agreed with opponents who called the ordinance “a reckless and harmful solution to a problem we have no data or research on”.
“This could lead to further discrimination against Hindus and could discourage employers from hiring South Asians,” she said. The affected community is deeply divided on the issue. »
Nelson also said the law would embroil the city in legal battles, to which Sawant replied: “Go ahead. Fear of lawsuits is not the way to make progress or change,” Sawant said.
Councilwoman Lisa Herbold questioned opponents’ reasoning that the law targets Hindus and people of Indian descent.
“It’s like saying that gender laws apply to all men,” she said. And just because we have a small population that suffers (class discrimination) does not mean that they are less important. »
Sobha Swamy, Hindu Alliance North America representative, said she was disappointed with the council’s deliberations and range of questions. The group said it had received offers of support from more than 100 organisations.
“No due diligence was done,” said Swami, who came from Atlanta. We will not stop striving to educate people and raise awareness of our traditions and culture. It’s not a sprint, but it is a marathon. »
s. Srikrishna, a technician from the San Francisco Bay Area, expressed concern about the implications of this law for the South Asian community.
“I also want the discrimination to stop,” he said. But first we have to prove that there is widespread discrimination. We need more time, context and context. The manner in which the council has rushed this bill is disturbing. »
Srikrishna, who is Hindu, believes the law is targeting his religion.
He said, “When you say he was born 2,000 years ago, it means that Hinduism is to blame.” “It bothers me. I feel betrayed.”
Sanjay Patel, a Seattle-area technology company owner, said he never felt discriminated against in the US as a member of the lower caste and that the law hurt him because it reminded him of his caste identity, which he believed had become mortal.
“I am concerned that this law is fearful of companies hiring South Asians,” he said. “It will also affect personal relationships if members of society start to see each other through a class lens.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, several activists braved the cold temperatures and gusty winds to line up outside City Hall so they could have a chance to speak to the council before the vote. But the advice concerned public comment at the meeting, where more than 300 people asked to speak virtually and in person. They heard about half of the comments before moving on to deliberation and voting.
The caste system in India dates back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on an individual’s occupation and birth. It is a system that developed over the centuries under Islamic and British rule. Suffering continued at the bottom of the caste hierarchy known as Dalits. Caste discrimination has been outlawed in India since 1948, the year after the nation gained its independence from British rule.
The United States is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates that the number of American expatriates has fallen from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The leading American South Asian organization Together reports that nearly Of the 5.4 million South Asians living in the United States, up from 3.5 million in the 2010 census. Most are from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Over the past three years, many college and university systems have taken steps to ban class discrimination.
In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first American college to include social class in its nondiscrimination policy. The California State University system, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. Harvard University has created dismissal protections for working students in 2021 as part of its contract with the Graduate Student Union.
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