Seattle Becomes the First U.S. Jurisdiction to Ban Caste Discrimination

Emily Zhang

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2024

On February 21, 2023, the Seattle City Council added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside South Asia. While the law seemingly only impacts employment practices in Seattle, employers outside of Seattle with large South Asian populations among their workforces should take note as other jurisdictions have begun to follow Seattle’s lead.

What is “caste-discrimination”?

The caste system is a social hierarchy structure that divides people at birth into social classes—it has roots in South Asia and Hinduism, but can also impact African, Middle Eastern, and Pacific communities. Under Seattle law, “caste” is a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion. The law further states that most of the affected communities live in or originate from the South Asian countries of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Caste-based discrimination can occur in the form of social segregation, physical and psychological abuse, and violence in employment, education, and housing. In 2020, an engineer (referred to as John Doe) working in Silicon Valley for Cisco complained that he was discriminated against as a Dalit by his two Indian supervisors. Doe received hateful comments by his Indian colleagues, whom are of the dominant caste, and when he notified his supervisor, he was refused a raise and had his workspace physically isolated from his team. Despite Doe’s internal complaints, Cisco defended itself by determining that caste discrimination is not unlawful. Doe’s suit, California Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Cisco Systems, Inc., was the first federal lawsuit seeking to recognize caste as a protected class under Title VII.

How does the ordinance apply?

Previously, scholars have argued that caste-discrimination could fall under the umbrella of national origin, race, ancestry, and or religious discrimination under Title VII and state and local anti-discrimination laws. However, the Seattle law is the first to explicitly prohibit caste-discrimination. The Seattle ordinance amends the city’s municipal code to include caste as a protected class, alongside categories such as race, religion and gender identity. This law prohibits caste discrimination in the context of employment, housing, public accommodations, and permits caste-oppressed individuals in the city to pursue litigation for alleged caste-discrimination.

Why the sudden legislation?

Efforts to address caste discrimination have risen in places like Seattle and Silicon Valley, where there are many South Asian residents who have experienced alleged caste discrimination. Except for Seattle, there is currently no federal, state, or local law in the U.S. explicitly prohibiting caste discrimination. This issue is highly relevant in Seattle, as it is one of the nation’s largest technology hubs and home to large companies that employ vast numbers of South Asian immigrants. South Asians comprise one of the nation’s fastest growing immigrant groups, thus, caste bias and discrimination has the potential to become more prominent within the U.S.

Although Seattle was the first U.S. jurisdiction to formally ban caste-discrimination, several higher education institutions have already made a person’s caste a protected status. Caste-oppressed students say that casteism tends to manifest in colleges and universities through slurs, microaggressions, and social exclusion. In 2021, Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers as part of the contract with its graduate student union. In 2022, schools like Brown University, the California State University System, Colby College, and Brandeis University moved to ban caste discrimination throughout their campuses. The measures taken by these education institutions may help guide employers considering similar measures.

How does this affect employers?

The issue is already making its way through the legal system, as a California state court is set to hear a case from a former Cisco Systems employee who claims discrimination because of his caste. Federal workplace civil rights agencies remain silent on the issue of caste discrimination, and this case will likely influence more legislation from other states.

Seattle employers should update their policies and trainings to ensure that caste discrimination does not occur in their employment practices. While the law seemingly only impacts employment practices in Seattle, employers outside of Seattle with large South Asian populations among their workforces should take note as other jurisdictions begin to follow Seattle’s lead. Even if you’re an employer in a state without any such caste-discrimination laws, plaintiffs may still bring caste-discrimination Title VII claims for protected categories like race and ancestry.