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Seattle First U.S. City to Ban on Caste Discrimination

On February 21, 2023, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to make it illegal for employers to discriminate based on a person's caste. As defined by The Washington Post, the caste system is a "hierarchical structure that determines a person's social standing at birth. It has roots in Hinduism but later spread to members of other faiths in South Asia. Dalits, formerly called untouchables, are relegated to the bottom rung in the South Asian order." Activists in favor of the law assert the caste system remains entrenched with South Asians as they set up communities in other countries. The Seattle City Council states more than 150,000 individuals of South Asian origin live in Washington state.

The new ordinance adds caste discrimination as a category under employment, public spaces, and housing protections. A California Dalit civil rights group says it received more than 250 worker complaints to the organization about "caste slurs in workplaces, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, demotion to retaliation and even firing." In 2020, a group of 30 Dalit women working in Silicon Valley publicly shared a statement on their experience with caste discrimination in the workplace, referring to working with Indian managers as a "living hell." The women said that without legal protections under anti-discrimination laws, they did not have avenues to share complaints with their companies.

The Hindu American Foundation opposed Seattle's measure. The Foundation says it "unfairly singles out and targets an entire community on the basis of their national origin and ancestry for disparate treatment." They argue that South Asians comprise less than 2% of Washington state's population and say there is little evidence of widespread discrimination.