ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Anti-caste Legislations in Seattle and California

Transnational Development of a Legal Category and Its Historical Resonances

Marking a historic moment in the global struggle against caste injustice, recent legislations in Seattle and California explicitly ban caste discrimination. The legal category of caste in these pieces of legislation is a product of decades of transnational activism by Dalits. It is also a category with a signifi cant history in the United States.

In a largely autobiographical essay about the indignities of caste, B R Ambedkar (nd) recalled that “My five years of stay in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable.” For later generations of Dalits who travelled overseas, however, this has not been the case. For the “new” Dalit diaspora, Dalits who immigrated to the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), and Canada after Indian independence, caste discrimination, harassment, and stigma have continued abroad (Kumar 2013). In the US, Dalit Americans have been reporting such experiences since at least the 1970s. As the number of South Asians in the US has grown, especially over the last 20 years, caste discrimination has also increased. “Caste,” as Rachel Fell McDermott (2008: 246) argued over 15 years ago, “is a diaspora problem now, and will only become more so in the coming years,” a fact well demonstrated by recent legal challenges1 and published accounts of discrimination in the workplace,2 exploitation in employment (Correal 2021), exclusion at schools (Kaur 2022), and discrimination in housing (Pariyar et al 2022).

To more effectively respond to the growing problem of caste discrimination, on 23 February 2023, Ordinance 126767 made Seattle Washington the first municipality in the US and the first city outside of South Asia to explicitly ban caste discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and contracting. One month later, on 22 March 2023, a bill to amend California’s anti-discrimination laws to add “caste” as a protected category was introduced in the California State Senate. That bill—Senate Bill (SB) 403—was recently passed by the state assembly and awaits the governor’s signature to become law. Seattle’s Ordinance 126767 and California’s SB 403 are, as many commentators have noted, “historic”: they are significant firsts that carry the potential for changing the future. The ordinance and bill are also the product of a long history of struggle for dignity and rights by caste-oppressed people. As Thenmozhi Soundararajan, co-founder of Equality Labs, stated about the passage of the Seattle law, it was a “win centuries in the making” (quoted in Kaur 2023).

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Updated On : 26th Sep, 2023
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