Meet the Activist Coalition That Outlawed Caste Discrimination in Seattle
“This is a recognition of over 2,000 years of oppression.”
As a teenager, Seattle-resident Alok Kumbhare was thrown out of his home after a minor dispute. His landlady at the time told Kumbhare — a caste-oppressed person — that “all you people are capable of [is] cleaning the sewers, and you should stay that way.” “This has stayed with me and scarred me for life,” Kumbhare told the Seattle City Council on January 24. “Sadly, this system of [caste] oppression, this mindset of superiority, this bias, has penetrated the Indian diaspora.”
Often relegated to extremely low-paying professions considered impure by dominant castes, caste-oppressed people suffer from educational and employment discrimination and other forms of direct and structural violence both in South Asia and the United States. In 2018, the Bay Area-based civil rights group Equality Labs released a survey on caste discrimination in the United States. Among other findings, it noted that two-thirds of the caste-oppressed Dalit population faced bias at work and that one in four faced “verbal or physical assault.”
Kumbhare was one of nearly 400 caste-oppressed people and allies who testified in support of an ordinance outlawing caste discrimination in Seattle, according to a campaign email by City Council member Kshama Sawant. Introduced by Sawant, the ordinance — which frames caste as a human rights issue — passed on February 21, making Seattle the first jurisdiction in the country to outlaw caste discrimination. The law adds caste as a protected category in Seattle’s equal rights law alongside 20 other protected categories including race, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
For Dalit activists who have previously struggled to even get caste oppression recognized outside South Asia, the win was momentous. “I teared up the moment the final vote tally was clear,” says Suresh Kumar, a member of the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) who requested that his real name not be disclosed for fear of illegal harassment and bullying of him or his family. “This is a recognition of over 2,000 years of oppression of my ancestors,” he says.
Organizers say the law is the result of years of anti-caste activism in the United States. Anil Wagde, spokesperson for the civil rights group Ambedkar International Center (AIC) compares the victory to a volcanic eruption, which appears instantaneous but is “a very slow process if you only know what is happening [to] the tectonic plates.”
The win in Seattle depended on an anti-caste alliance made up of Dalit groups as well as gender, racial and labor justice activists. “This is an intersectionality that’s practical, that’s tactical, that came from really needing to support people,” says Equality Labs’ executive director Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Over the past few years, the resulting network achieved victories, including several university-level bans on caste discrimination.
News of caste discrimination in U.S. workplaces really reached the mainstream in June 2020, when the state of California sued the tech giant Cisco Systems for caste discrimination after a Dalit engineer at the company alleged that two dominant caste managers denied him a promotion on the basis of caste, in addition to harassing him and retaliating against him after he complained. “With the Cisco case, it was undeniable,” says Sujatha Ramni, a member of the progressive diasporic Coalition of Seattle Indian-Americans (CSIA). “There was no way that people could say that caste doesn’t exist…that [it] only happens in India,” she adds.
The claim against Cisco was one of the first of its kind in a U.S. court. There is no provision barring caste discrimination in federal employment law. “Companies like Alphabet employ a large number of workers of South Asian origin … via contracting, which [strongly intersects] with caste,” says Meera Patel, a member of Google’s Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) who requested the use of a pseudonym because of fear of retaliation by Google.
While prevalent in tech, where a large number of workers are of South Asian descent, caste discrimination is by no means confined to the sector. Kumar believes that blue-collar caste-oppressed people face even more serious consequences. Because of the difference in caste status, the employers think “it is okay … to indulge in wage suppression or make them work longer hours or don’t provide them any protective equipment that they may need to do the job,” says Kumar.
Labor unions have taken on the fight against caste discrimination. Currently, AWU is pushing Google to include a ban on caste discrimination in its U.S. code of conduct, as the company does in India. AWU was also involved in the passage of the Seattle law alongside unions and worker collectives like the AFL-CIO constituency group Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the cross-company anti-caste network Tech Workers for Caste Equity, and the University of Washington’s academic worker union.
These organizations joined the effort led by a constellation of Seattle activists including members of the CSIA, Sawant’s office and others in her leftwing political party Socialist Alternative. The coalition worked with several Dalit-led organizations on drafting the legislation. Raghav Kaushik of CSIA says Kshama Sawant and her staff worked on the policy language banning caste discrimination while Dalit-led organizations and the rest of the coalition worked on the “whereas clauses” to the ordinance, which framed the issue of caste politically, ethically and factually.
Kaushik says that Sawant and others in Socialist Alternative leadership knew from experience that an approach based on lobbying behind closed doors would not work, which meant serious public pressure was needed. To turn up the heat, the coalition raised several thousand dollars through small donations for an ad supporting the ordinance in the Seattle Times, and secured a letter to the City Council from moral heavyweight Cornel West. About 180 local and national groups also endorsed the campaign in a letter to the City Council.
Organizations like AIC, Equality Labs, Ambedkar King Study Circle, Sikh Dalit groups and the AANA mobilized members of their communities through Whatsapp groups, Zoom and phone calls and announcements at religious institutions. As a result, Dalit people and allies came forth to contribute their stories and support, with 1,300 signing a petition in support of the legislation and more than 4,000 sending emails to the City Council, according to an email sent by Sawant to her mailing list.
By drawing on networks forged through a previous legislative victory against an anti-Muslim law in India, the coalition mobilized people from different religious and caste backgrounds to testify. In addition to the 400 who officially testified, activists working on the campaign told In These Times hundreds more had signed up, but couldn’t speak because slots were limited. Thanks to these efforts, on February 21, the City Council voted 6-1 (with two members absent) to pass the ordinance.
The coalition’s experience, itself built on previous campaigns in the U.S. and Canadian diasporas, is now serving as a model for other jurisdictions. About three weeks after the victory in Seattle, Toronto’s school board—in conversation with anti-caste academics, unions, artists and teachers — became the first in Canada to accept that caste oppression exists in its schools. And just two weeks after Toronto, Aisha Wahab, a lawmaker from the state senate of California, has announced that she is seeking to ban caste discrimination as well. If the legislation passes, it would be the first state-level ban on caste discrimination in the US. West has already lent his support again, and groups like Equality Labs, AANA and Californians for Caste Equity are beginning to mobilize around the law.
Fighting for caste equity has plenty of dangers; Patel says caste-oppressed workers in particular risk “retaliation from management, losing their immigration status (as many of them are on work visas), risks to families in the US or in their home countries, doxxing and online harassment.” But the diverse coalition of activists fighting for caste equity is not backing down. “We deserve our civil rights,” Soundararajan says, “and we’re going to fight for them.”