The Seattle City Council will vote Feb. 21 on whether to add a ban on caste discrimination to the city’s existing anti-discrimination law. The caste system, with its origins in India and other South Asian nations, is a complex, rigid, and hierarchical structure of privilege based on birth.
With the immigration of large numbers of South Asians to the U.S., the caste system and its inherent prejudices have come here too. But it is also being challenged in lawsuits and legislation in India, and in the U.S., including with the Seattle ordinance.
How it operates
The caste system is based on a perceived social hierarchy based on birth in which a few upper castes enjoy the privileges and hold the most wealth, opportunity, and political and social power. At the bottom are the Dalits, formerly called “untouchables.” In between, there are thousands of castes and hundreds of sub-castes.
Like in other systems of privilege and discrimination, these are all subtly ranked and signaled both openly, like with a person’s last name, or invisibly, in habits or manners whose meaning is clear only to those raised in the caste system.
This system has historically perpetuated injustices, denying lower castes access to basic human rights, including drinking water and educational opportunities. In many ways, such struggles for basic rights to access public spaces still continue in rural India. Just recently, 200 dalits gained entry into a once-banned village temple for the first time in 75 years.
People born into high castes often defend the system as connected to their culture, tradition, and heritage. Some even proudly introduce themselves as members of a particular caste. And they form caste-based associations, such as the Brahman Samaj of North America and the Brahman Samaj of USA, which seek to connect people of the Brahman caste together across the diaspora, encouraging marriage within the caste rather than outside it. They also have generational privileges people in lower castes will never know.
But the lower castes’ trauma and harm of being treated as less-than-human is passed from generation to generation, too.
In my ongoing research on the South Asian diaspora, I’ve found that many South Asians hide their caste identity because they belong to a lower caste. Fortunately, however, I have also come across many upper-caste individuals who openly reject these types of inhumane caste traditions.
Many Dalits and employees from other lower castes who live in the U.S. tell me they feel they must hide their identity at work. In 2020, an engineer working at Cisco Systems, a technology networking giant, sued his employer in California, alleging he was discriminated against on the basis of his lower caste. His upper-caste colleagues, the suit alleged, left him out of meetings and ignored his prospects for promotion. The suit is still moving through the state’s court system.
Similar challenges to caste prejudice are arising around the country, particularly on university campuses. Starting in 2019 at Brandeis University, the movement has spread to University of California, Davis, Harvard University and Colby College. In 2022, the California State University system, the nation’s largest university system with more than 485,000 students and about 56,000 faculty and staff members, also banned caste-based discrimination.
University students around the world have created Dalit Lives Matter groups, often alongside Black Lives Matter organizations. Members share their experiences of being excluded from social gatherings and harassed with casteist slurs, and call for an end to this type of discrimination.
The movement has found wider support, too. In 2020, Oprah sent 500 copies of journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste,” which calls attention to caste discrimination in the U.S., to CEOs, governors, mayors, and academics. In 2021, the NAACP passed a resolution opposing the use of the caste system in the United States.
More than 167,000 South Asians live in Washington state, with the largest concentration in the greater Seattle area. When making her anti-discrimination proposal, Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant said “the city must address caste discrimination, and not allow it to remain invisible and unaddressed.”
The fact that the proposal has arisen in Seattle is key: Several large companies have their headquarters in the city, including Amazon and Microsoft. Many of these companies have significant business operations in South Asia, as well as the U.S.
And the technology sector in the Seattle area, and around the country, employs a large share of people of South Asian origin. I’ve found that many South Asian students study computer science and related subjects, and are likely to join the IT industry in the tech hubs in Silicon Valley and Seattle.
Lower caste South Asians are welcoming Sawant’s proposal, saying it gives them hope for an equitable future in a global society. And it could be a model for other cities and states that have significant populations of South Asian origin — as well as companies to adopt more inclusive policies.
I believe the caste system is an evil, anti-civil power system. I view this proposal in Seattle, and others that may follow, as an opportunity for all South Asians to come together in a new home and set an example of real unity and fraternity, promoting the universal values of equality, especially for those who have been denied it for centuries.
I see the opportunity for a safe environment for those long forced to live in silence and suffering based on caste. It’s also an opportunity for those who are historically privileged to embrace a broader understanding of their role in their communities.
Gaurav J. Pathania is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Peacebuilding in the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. He runs a Global Initiative for Equity and Justice and collaborates with anti-caste, race, and feminist scholars working in the area of higher education and social justice. He also moderates the mindsofcaste.org website and is part of the Ambedkar International Center’s Authors’ Lab, mentoring emerging scholars in the area of caste and social justice.