Why Seattle banned caste discrimination

Nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S., most of whom trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, according to the group South Asian Americans Leading Together. In many of these communities, a 3,000-year-old social hierarchical system known as caste is still prevalent. On Feb. 21, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban caste- based discrimination by incorporating it into its anti-discrimination laws.

The PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis spoke with Gaurav Pathania, a sociologist and expert in caste at Eastern Mennonite University, about what the move in Seattle could mean for the rest of the country.

Watch the conversation in the live player above.

What is a caste system?

The caste system is a “complex cultural system that classifies people as upper and lower and lowest” at birth, Pathania said. In India, Dalits are commonly considered the lowest caste, and Brahmin are considered the highest. “If one is born as a Brahmin, he or she will die as a Brahmin. There is no escape. If you’re born as a Dalit, a lower caste, you will die a Dalit.”

While it was outlawed in India in 2013, thousands of years of caste-based discrimination continue to inform and affect people’s socioeconomic status, job opportunities and access to resources in the U.S. and elsewhere, Pathania said. It’s common for “people growing up in a casteist environment [to] learn so many caste-based prejudices about the other castes,” he said, adding that some people still try to figure out which caste someone is from in order to decide how to treat them.

Surnames, skin tones and dialects are commonly used to try to determine a person’s caste, Pathania said. For people in so-called lower castes, he said, “there are experiences shared of being excluded from social gatherings and being harassed with casteist slurs.” In both subtle and overt ways, the caste system informs everyday interactions for many in the South Asian diaspora.

“Caste has now migrated, and those people with the casteist mindset have many caste perceptions which contributed to believing in the idea of superiority and inferiority.” This is reflected in various types of discrimination and expulsion of people in lower castes in the U.S., Pathania said.

Universities, tech companies and other settings have felt the effects of caste discrimination for years. A 2016 survey of South Asian Americans conducted by Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs found that 25 percent of Dalit respondents said they had faced verbal or physical assault based on their caste. In 2020, California sued the tech giant CISCO, accusing it of caste-based discrimination against an Indian-American employee. And the impact of deeply internalized and subtly coded caste-based discrimination played a role in Netflix’s highly acclaimed “Indian Matchmaking.” Caste- based discrimination can manifest in nearly all facets of life, including romantic relationships, Pathania said.

It is for those reasons, Pathania explained, that places like Seattle have moved to ban caste-based discrimination.

The PBS NewsHour’s Frances Kai-Hwa Wang contributed reporting to this piece.