Indian American councillor behind the ban, Kshama Sawant, calls it “the biggest breakthrough victory against caste oppression”
With legislation that went into effect Monday, Seattle became the first US city to prohibit caste discrimination. In what can easily be called a landmark, it is the first time that a law banning caste discrimination has been enforced in a city outside of India.
Indian American council member Kshama Sawant was the prime mover behind the legislation. Despite discontent by some Hindu organizations, the Seattle City Council passed the bill last month by six to one vote. On Monday, this ban against caste discrimination went into effect.
Read: Seattle becomes first US city to ban caste discrimination (February 22, 2023)
Council member Kshama Sawant (District 3, Central Seattle), chair of the Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, talking about historic Seattle caste discrimination ban becoming law, said, “The world’s first ban against caste discrimination outside South Asia goes into effect today in our city of Seattle!”
“Seattle’s law now prohibits businesses from discriminating based on caste with respect to hiring, tenure, promotion, workplace conditions, or wages,” she said. “It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments. The law also prohibits housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans.”
On how the ban came about, Sawant says, “This victory was won by our Socialist Council office leading a fighting movement alongside oppressed-caste working people, dominant-caste Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Importantly, we were also joined by the wider working class and union members.”
Some of the most prominent organizations who won this historic victory are Socialist Alternative, Workers Strike Back, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar Association of North America, Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans, Equality Labs, Ambedkar King Study Circle, Indian American Muslim Council, Khalsa Gurmat Center, Alphabet Workers Union, UAW 4121, and Hindus for Human Rights, she said.
Asked why Seattle’s Ban on caste discrimination is so significant, Sawant said, “This is the biggest breakthrough victory for the global fight against caste oppression in many decades.”
Read: Seattle considers historic law barring caste discrimination (February 21, 2023)
“It has opened the floodgates for potentially winning such a ban on caste discrimination in other cities and states. It’s not surprising that since we won in Seattle, policies against caste discrimination have been proposed in Toronto and California.”
“But further victories are not guaranteed unless activists and working people adopt the kind of fighting strategy we used to win in Seattle. In fact, it is not coincidental that this unprecedented step forward occurred in this city,” Sawant said.
“We won precisely because Socialist Alternative and I use our Council office as a vehicle to build united movements of working people, independent of the establishment that represents big business and the status quo,” she said.
“Without that approach, this victory would not have been possible—particularly in the face of fierce Hindu right-wing opposition, the likes of which we should expect to see in every upcoming struggle against caste oppression.”
“Our ban on caste discrimination is also significant because it is a rare offensive victory against the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist, and billionaire-backed regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India.” Sawant said.
Read: Kshama Sawant introduces first law to ban caste discrimination (January 25, 2023)
“The Modi regime has been in power for eight years, despite unprecedented general strikes by the Indian labor movement, because of the absence of any left alternative that can unite the mass of working people around a working-class, anti-oppression political program,” she said.
“Under the Modi regime—backed by big business and most of the state institutions and corporate media—attacks against oppressed-caste people have been ramped up and Islamophobia is being dangerously fomented,” Sawant alleged.
On next steps for Seattle’s ban on caste discrimination, Sawant said, “Winning legislation to make caste-based discrimination illegal in Seattle was an essential first step. Now, it’s critical for us to fight to enforce it!
“We need to keep building our movement to put pressure on the courts to win a case against caste discrimination using this law, which will be essential to force the major corporations to actually abide by it. My Council office will host a public hearing in May, inviting working people to speak out.”
On what was won in Toronto and how to win big in California, Sawant said, “Just two weeks ago, the Toronto District School Board, which oversees the largest school district in Canada, voted to recognize the existence of caste discrimination.
“This is an important victory for all South Asians and public school students in Toronto, and demonstrates that working and young people globally are ready to fight against caste oppression.”
“In an open letter to the Toronto School Board, I urged them to pass the proposal, and explained that right-wing Hindu fundamentalists were using the same false arguments against the Toronto proposal that they used against our ordinance in Seattle,” Sawant said.
“In the fight against oppression and economic exploitation, we cannot shy away from naming the enemy, in this case the Hindu fundamentalist right wing. We should never underestimate the opposition they will put up.
“Winning meaningful progressive change in society is not automatic—the strength of our victories depends upon building strong, united movements that can mobilize to defeat the right wing and the ruling political establishment,” she said.
“In California, State Senator Aisha Wahab has introduced a bill that would ban caste discrimination at the state level,” Sawant noted. “If this bill were to pass, it would be the most sweeping victory against caste discrimination in history and the first major win after our victory in Seattle which set off this chain reaction.”
“To win the legislation in the California State Legislature, it will be crucial to mobilize thousands of activists and working people—South Asian activists, union members, and the broader working class,” she said.
“We will need a movement like we built in Seattle in order to beat the right wing and to force the majority of Democrats and Republican State Legislators (who are not on our side) to concede. The Modi-aligned right wing will show up in force, as they did in Seattle, to try and defeat this bill.”
Read: Seattle City Council considers historic law barring caste discrimination (February 20, 2023)
“Ultimately, the level of protections we can win for oppressed people and Dalits will depend on the strength of our movement,” Sawant said.
“In Seattle, we mobilized thousands of working people to write to and speak at City Hall, mobilized over 4,000 emails to the City Council demanding they vote ‘Yes’, and we collected over 1,400 signatures in support of our ordinance.,” she said. “This is the kind of approach that will win a ban on caste discrimination in the state of California and beyond.”