Last week, the city of Seattle approved a proposal to add caste to its list of protected classifications under its antidiscrimination ordinance that applies to employment and housing. Caste is a social hierarchy system based on a person’s birth. While practiced in a number of countries, the Seattle proposal is largely based on concerns that South Asian immigrants have been exposed to discrimination based on their caste.
South Asian American interest groups have split with regard to the proposed ordinance. Some have backed the measure, citing the need to protect individuals from the effects of caste discrimination that has carried over to persons in the U.S. Others consider the measure to constitute discrimination against Hindus, and say that there is little evidence of actual caste discrimination occurring in U.S. workplaces. These critics also believe that existing laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and religion already cover caste discrimination.
Seattle is the first governmental unit in the U.S. to specifically prohibit caste discrimination. In recent years, a number of universities have added caste to the list or protected classifications under their antidiscrimination and harassment policies. These moves may reflect the beginning of a larger trend toward explicit protections against discrimination based on historical social status.