Article by Seattle City Councilmember and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant. Originally published in the Nation.
Standing in the Seattle City Council chambers on February 21, an Indian-American tech worker named Naresh recalled the caste discrimination he has faced beginning at age 5 in India. His voice quivered with anger as he thought about the dignity denied to him. If he touched a dominant-caste person, he said, they would claim that they needed to “take a shower because they consider me untouchable.” Over the course of the meeting, many other oppressed-caste speakers joined Naresh, sharing their own experiences with caste discrimination — often in their own workplaces in the United States.
Caste is a system of oppression that divides people into a rigid hierarchy of groups based on birth, with “lower” groups facing serious discrimination and even violence by those “above” them. The system originated more than 2,000 years ago in South Asia, but remains pervasive today under American capitalism, including in Seattle — a place many South Asians now call home, and where I serve as a City Council member.
For centuries, the caste system has been systematically used by South Asian ruling classes to divide and exploit the mass of ordinary people. Those who were designated as the “lowest” castes — historically called “untouchables” — were the most cruelly exploited. Today, most people in this caste prefer the identity of Dalits, which means “those who have been broken but are resilient.”
Much of the American ruling class were once plantation owners who relied on the brutal system of slavery for their wealth. They similarly promoted utterly false ideas of innate inferiority to justify their “peculiar institution” and the violence they used to maintain it. In every class society, the small minority who profit from the brutal exploitation of the masses rely on ideology and division to maintain their rule.
For people like Naresh and his family, the hope was that coming to the United States meant leaving caste behind. But as South Asian immigration has grown, so has the spread of caste-based discrimination. Studies from Equality Labs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have found workplace caste-based discrimination to be a pervasive reality for caste-oppressed workers in the United States.
Last week in Seattle, our movement achieved a historic victory for workers like Naresh, and for all those facing discrimination and exploitation. It was not only those born into oppressed castes who fought for our legislation but also Muslims, Sikhs, socialists, union workers, dominant-caste Hindus, and white and non-white working people. The strength and unity of our rank-and-file movement was what made it possible for Seattle to become the first city in the nation to ban caste-based discrimination—and the first globally outside South Asia.
This is just the beginning — casteism will not simply end because basic legal protections have been won, any more than racism has ended. But it is a major step, nonetheless.
Our movement based itself on a fighting strategy independent of the Democratic and Republican parties. For the nearly 10 years that I have been a council member, Socialist Alternative—my activist organization—and I have used our office to build movements able to wrest major victories from big business and the city’s Democratic establishment. We helped make Seattle the first major city to win a $15-an-hour minimum wage, won our Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing, and passed landmark renters’ rights.
This same approach was crucial in winning this week, with the movement having to overcome not only strenuous opposition from the Hindu right wing but also opposition of a different kind from Democratic politicians, who in various ways threatened to kill or undermine the legislation.
Our most high-profile opponent was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a far-right organization tied to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The VHP has been implicated, among other things, in the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims. The right-wing Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America also set themselves against us.
Mainstream Democratic council members were overwhelmingly not on our side in this fight, and initially echoed some of the right wing’s talking points—though ultimately all but one voted “yes” under pressure from our movement. But on the day of the vote, they hatched plans to delay or undermine the legislation. That morning, I received a phone call from one council member who said they intended to bring forward an amendment to delay the law’s implementation, based on a stated concern of inadequate funding for Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. It’s true this office has been shamefully and chronically underfunded by successive Democratic Party mayors and city councils, but it is in my view unconscionable for these same Democrats — who have frequently opposed my efforts to tax big business to fund services — to use this pretext to demoralize oppressed-caste workers and empower the right wing. (Said council member finally backed down, but it’s a reminder how crucial it is to mobilize working people to overcome establishment opposition.)
As I have said throughout my tenure as an independent socialist, we need a new party for working people and the oppressed. This has been on full display in national politics of late, as self-described “pro-labor” President Biden was joined by both Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in passing the strikebreaking bill against railroad workers fighting for sick leave and workplace safety. We’ve already seen the brutal consequences of Democrats’ siding with the railroad tycoons, with the totally avoidable catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio.
The very fact that we are having to defend American workers against the 2,000-year-old caste system in 2023 — in the wealthiest country in human history — shows once again the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. We need a fundamentally different kind of society: one based on solidarity, equality, and democracy — run by and for working people, not billionaires.
For now, let’s spread our victory against caste discrimination to other cities — and put the new Seattle law into action by holding corporations accountable in the courts.