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Seattle makes history: First U.S. city to ban caste discrimination


Here in the United States, Seattle has become the first city in this country to ban discrimination based on caste. That new law in the Pacific Northwest applies to the social hierarchy into which many South Asians are born - or are told that they are born. Some people opposed the legislation. Here's Lilly Ana Fowler from our member station KNKX.

LILLY ANA FOWLER, BYLINE: There was a bit of chaos at Seattle City Hall ahead of yesterday's vote to ban caste discrimination. Both those for and against the idea gathered in the lobby hours before the vote was set to take place.


FOWLER: Some held signs that read heal from caste. But others accused Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, an immigrant from India who first introduced the proposal a month ago, of not doing her due diligence.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I completely request you to consider this. Take time - there is no rush - understanding properly.

FOWLER: As councilmembers prepared to vote, hundreds of people signed up for public comment. Some thought of the proposal as anti-Hindu. But the majority urged city officials to take their experiences with discrimination seriously.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I say ban caste and vote yes. I'm facing caste discrimination from the age of 5. I used to touch the lady, and she used to take a shower because they would consider me as untouchable. It was such a disgusting thing. And the same thing happening in the United States.

FOWLER: The new law will add caste to a list of protected classes such as race, age and religion. It's meant to protect workers from South Asia who are members of oppressed castes and experience discrimination in Seattle. NPR sat down with one software engineer who works in Seattle on an H-1B visa. He says his manager discriminated against him after finding out he was a Dalit, formerly known as an untouchable, the lowest stratum of castes in India.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And immediately after that, he stopped sending me critical work.

FOWLER: The tech worker, who asked not to be named because of possible repercussions at his company, says he's already beginning to look for a new job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: People never leave their caste. They might leave their country, but caste never leaves.

FOWLER: He and other supporters of the measure to ban caste discrimination say they hope other cities will copy Seattle and soon pass similar bills.

For NPR News, I'm Lilly Ana Fowler in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lilly Ana Fowler
Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. Before joining KNKX, she worked for the online news organization Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. She's also worked as a producer with the national PBS show "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" and a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, Slate Magazine, Mother Jones, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She was born in Mexico, grew up in the border town of Nogales, and is fluent in Spanish.