By Sunita Sohrabji
A resolution to ban caste discrimination in Seattle has Indian Americans divided over whether it would in fact end discrimination, and whether such discrimination even exists.
A controversial resolution now before Seattle’s City Council has exposed a deep fault line among Indian Americans. If passed, Seattle would be the first city in the nation to ban caste-based discrimination.
Indian Americans remain divided over the issue, with hundreds of letters both for and against the measure flooding council members’ offices.
More than 157 people assembled Feb. 14 to give their public comments on the resolution proposed by council member Kshama Sawant. A vote on the measure is scheduled for Feb. 21.
Supporters say caste-based discrimination — largely by other Indian Americans — still exists at schools, universities, at the workplace, and even in personal interactions. Opponents challenge the notion that caste-based discrimination exists in the U.S. and contend that existing laws already protect those who feel they have been discriminated against.
“This is our moment. Seattle will be the first city in the country to really protect workers’ ability to complain to the city if they face discrimination,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, told Ethnic Media Services. “Companies lack competency about caste equity: they are allowing significant discrimination and bias to exist at their workplaces.”
Caste discrimination in the workplace
Seattle is home base for many tech giants, including Amazon and Microsoft.
Soundararajan is the author of “The Trauma of Caste,” published by Penguin Random House and released last November. Earlier last year, the Dalit activist was invited to give a talk at Google. But Google employees complained, saying Soundararajan was “anti-Hindu” and “Hindu phobic.”
The Dalits belong to what is considered the lowest category within India’s traditional caste system. Members of the Dalit community have long faced discrimination in India.
Soundararajan went to the top: Google chief Sundar Pichai, who is also from India and is of the highest Brahmin caste. But her talk was canceled, nonetheless. Tanuja Gupta, who had invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned in protest.
“These groups could have chosen to listen to the voices of the oppressed and attempt to begin the process of healing. They did not, which tells me that Google is content to ignore its caste problems,” said Soundararajan.
Maya Kamble, a member of the Ambedkar Association of North America — named for the famous 20th Century Dalit activist B.R. Ambedkar — wrote a letter to Seattle City Council members supporting the resolution.
She told Ethnic Media Services she had also faced direct workplace harassment because of her caste. “An Indian manager I worked with at a tech company in the Bay Area would always undermine me in meetings or ignore what I had to say. My colleagues started to back me up.”
“One day, he said in front of all of them: ‘you better not touch this project, because you are ill-fated.’ I come from an untouchable background. We are told we are untouchable because we are ill-fated. So, he was clearly making a reference to my caste in front of my colleagues. It really stung deeply,” said Kamble. “I never imagined that caste would come back to me in this way in America,” she said, noting that she is an expert in her field.
“I just want to work. I don’t want to fight every day,” said Kamble. “I’m hopeful that this resolution will encourage Amazon to add caste as a protected category in their sustainability code.”
A ‘civil rights challenge’
But Aldrin Deepak, who is also Dalit, had a markedly different point of view.
“I have lived in the U.S. for 35 years. I have never been asked ‘what caste do you belong to?’” he said. “How do people know who is Dalit and who is not? No one is giving out any certificates.”
Deepak is the IT Director at a local San Francisco Bay Area company. “The friends who guided me along my career path are all Brahmins,” he noted.
“This is a ridiculous issue meant to divide our community,” said Deepak.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), noted that the U.S. Constitution inherently guarantees protection from discrimination based on race or nationality. “Existing laws that ban discrimination based on national origin could arguably protect anyone who has faced caste discrimination, which is very rare,” she told Ethnic Media Services.
“This is perhaps the greatest civil rights challenge our community has faced. It adds one more stereotype of Indians as racists. They are dragging the politics of the subcontinent to the U.S. and pitting communities against each other. This will impact our children and our grandchildren,” said Shukla.
HAF has also sent a letter to Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison opposing the resolution.
During the hour-long public comment period, city council members heard from 50 people who overwhelmingly supported the measure. Several Dalits shared their experiences of workplace discrimination, alleging they were denied promotions and raises once their managers identified them as lower caste.
Several speakers said they had immigrated to the U.S. to be free of the oppressive caste system, but were disappointed to find that culture prevalent in the U.S.
Pushpita Prasad, of the Coalition of Bay Area Hindus of North America alleged that speakers who opposed the measure simply were not allowed to speak during the public comment period. “Seattle is a very accommodating city. But this resolution singles out a group of people. If a law like this is passed, any human conflict can be weaponized as discrimination,” she said.
In July 2020, a Dalit employee of Cisco, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, saying he was discriminated against by his Indian American supervisors because of his caste.
The employee, who was not named, said he received lower wages and fewer opportunities because of his caste. Moreover, his supervisors allegedly mocked him, saying he had only got admission into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology because of India’s affirmative action policies in support of members of lower castes.
DFEH dropped the case, but it is now scheduled to be heard by the California Supreme Court.