In the fall of 2015, a group of Dalit survivors and activists from India began marching across 16 cities in North America—including New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle—to “break the silence” on caste apartheid and expose caste-based sexual violence in India and abroad.
Organized by the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, the march gave Dalit women, who belong to the lowest stratum of a hierarchical caste system in India, an opportunity to speak about issues of caste privilege with the Dalit diaspora and South Asian Americans, as well as connect with other intersectional movements like #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, and INCITE. The group then met with Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal in 2019 for the first-ever congressional briefing on how to support caste-oppressed survivors.
This week, years of work culminated in a historic win: On Feb. 22, Seattle became the first American city to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of caste, after a vote by the city council amended the city’s municipal code to include caste as a protected class along with categories like race, religion and gender identity. Led by councilwoman Kshama Sawant, the law bans caste discrimination in workplaces, housing, and public spaces such as transport, hotels, public restrooms, and retail establishments.
Sawant was born in Mumbai and raised in an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin household before moving to the United States from India. Noting that Seattle was home to more than 167,000 South Asians, she said its elected officials have a “political and moral obligation” to address caste discrimination so that it does not remain “invisible and unaddressed.”
“The fight against caste discrimination is deeply connected to the fight against all forms of oppression,” Sawant said.
What is caste discrimination?
Caste is a system of social hierarchy in India that dates back over 3,000 years, dividing Hindu society based on the concepts of purity and social status. The word “caste” originates from “castus”—a Latin word that means pure—which first entered the Indian lexicon in the 1700s, when the Portuguese arrived in the Indian subcontinent and used it to describe the country’s social stratification.
Under the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu text, Hindu society is described as being split into four categories or classes known as the “varnas:” the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants), and the Shudras (laborers). Those outside the system became known as the outcasts or “untouchables,” and later as the Dalits, which means “broken” in Sanskrit.
While the definition of caste has evolved over time, especially under Muslim and British rule, discrimination against Dalits is rampant in India even today.
In 1948, India outlawed caste discrimination, enshrining the ban in its Constitution in 1950. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, known as the “Father of the Constitution” for drafting the historic document, was a revered leader of the Dalit community. He became a staunch advocate for Dalit rights through his politics and writing, including his critical work in 1936, The Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar’s work led to the recognition of Dalits as a historically oppressed group in India and later offered protections in the form of “quotas”—an affirmative action-based reserving of seats in public institutions and sectors—as well as anti-discriminatory laws.
But despite its outlawing, caste discrimination continues in modern India in nearly every aspect of Hindu religious and social life. Social stigma and hate crimes against Dalits continue to infiltrate Indian society: India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded nearly 51,000 crimes committed against Dalits in 2021, an increase from the previous year. Experts say the figure is likely to be much higher, as many crimes go unreported.
How does caste discrimination infiltrate the U.S.?
Ambedkar once wrote that “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” In the U.S., where Indian Americans make up the second-largest immigrant group with over 4 million residents, caste has long been a sensitive and controversial issue. For one, it stands directly in opposition to the myth that the Indian diaspora is a “model minority”—a group of well-educated and hard-working immigrants who assimilate seamlessly into the country.
But sensitivity to caste has also helped obscure it: whenever a dominant group of South Asians has settled in Seattle, New Jersey, or Silicon Valley, it has knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated caste bias amongst its community. A 2020 study conducted among Indian Americans by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that roughly half of the Hindu respondents identified with a caste group, with newly-arrived Hindus in the U.S. just as likely to identify with a caste group as those who had been in the country for over 25 years.
Moreover, because caste isn’t as visible as race or the color of one’s skin, it allows dominant groups to benefit from caste privilege by being more upwardly mobile in the U.S. than their counterparts, who are often concerned about hiding their identity out of fears of being “outed.” Another survey conducted by Dalit rights organization Equality Labs in 2018 found that many oppressed caste members of South Asian diaspora communities had reported enduring caste discrimination firsthand: one in four Dalits had faced verbal or physical assault, while two out of every three faced discrimination at work.
A forthcoming report on U.S. higher education from the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity and Equality Labs also reveals that four in five caste-oppressed students, staff, and faculty experience caste discrimination from dominant-caste peers.
What are some examples of caste discrimination in the U.S.?
Caste discrimination can take many forms: from the refusal to marry someone from an oppressed caste; to heated debates over whether history textbooks should cover the topic of caste; to widespread workplace harassment inside technology companies.
In 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems because two dominant-caste Indian American employees were discriminating against a Dalit employee. The lawsuit attracted a wave of wrenching testimonials of similar experiences, along with media scrutiny over the entrenched nature of caste in Silicon Valley and more broadly. The Cisco lawsuit also gave impetus to a public hotline set up by Equality Labs, which received calls from more than 250 tech workers at Google, Facebook, Apple, and others.
The move was followed by a separate federal lawsuit in 2021, which accused a Hindu organization of exploiting Dalit workers to build temples across the country on minimum wage. In that same year, a handful of American universities including UC Davis and Harvard introduced policies to protect against caste discrimination on campus.
“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,” Sawant reflected in her official statement.
How are Indian Americans responding to the legislation?
Many interfaith and inter-caste organizers in the U.S. have lauded the historic win — including the Ambedkar Association of North America, the Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans, the Indian American Muslim Council, and the National Academic Coalition for Caste Equity.
Other cities and states may well follow in Seattle’s footsteps. Colorado and Michigan recently declared 14 April as Dr. BR Ambedkar Equity Day, while Canada’s British Columbia province also declared April as Dalit History Month.
The debates around caste have also compelled Indian Americans to grapple with issues of race and privilege more broadly in the U.S. In her book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson compares the histories of caste and race across India and the US. “Caste is the bone and race is the skin,” she writes. According to Sonja Thomas, an associate professor at Colby College in Maine, South Asians are also rethinking anti-blackness in their own communities and how it is informed by their privilege and casteism.
However, some Hindu American groups oppose the new law in Seattle. In a public statement, the Washington DC-based Hindu American Federation said that the ban “singles out” Hindus for additional scrutiny and that such discrimination was already outlawed by other U.S. laws, despite maintaining that caste discrimination is wrong and violates “core Hindu principles of the divine oneness of all beings.”
For Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the Executive Director of Equality Labs, one of the women who began marching back in 2015, the fight is far from over. “We are united as a South Asian-American community in our commitment to heal from caste,” she said. “First Seattle, now the nation!”
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