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Indian American Behind US’ First Caste Discrimination Ban: Who Is Kshama Sawant?

The bill is a victory for the South Asian American community who fought for recognition in the United States.

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Video Producer: Aparna Singh

Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma

On Tuesday, 21 February, Seattle achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first city in the United States to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on caste after Indian American Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant introduced a "first-in-the-nation" legislation to ban caste-based discrimination.

US-based civil rights group, the Ambedkar International Center, Inc (AIC), and other rights groups had asked the Seattle City Council to ban caste-based discrimination and worked closely with Sawant, the Coalition of Seattle Indian-Americans (CSAI), Equality Labs, and the Ambedkar Association of North America to help draft the proposed ordinance. 

“This bill is not technically complicated, it’s a very simple question: Should discrimination based on caste be allowed to continue in Seattle?” Sawant said and noted that she hopes that the move will be a “beacon” that other cities follow.

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Who Is Kshama Sawant?

An Indian American politician and economist, Sawant has served on the Seattle City Council since 2014. She is a member of Socialist Alternative, and the first and only member of the party to be elected to public office yet. 

Sawant was born in a middle-class Tamil household and was mostly raised in Mumbai. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Mumbai.

"While growing up in India, Kshama was always conscious of the extreme poverty and inequality surrounding her," a Seattle government website says of Sawant.

A former software engineer, she became an economics instructor in Seattle after she immigrated to the US from India. Sawant's motive to move to the United States and study economics was largely owed to her wanting to "better understand the root causes of oppression and poverty." However, it was after moving to the US that she "surprised and radicalised by the inequality and poverty that exists here."

After earning her PhD, Kshama moved to Seattle and began teaching at Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University, and the University of Washington Tacoma.

Sawant joined Socialist Alternative in 2006, and since then, she has helped organise demonstrations for marriage equality, participated in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was a visible presence in the Occupy Movement. She has also been an activist in her union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, fighting against budget cuts and tuition hikes.

Sawant ran unsuccessfully for the Washington House of Representatives back in 2012 before she won a seat on the Seattle City Council. 

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In 2012, Kshama ran as a Socialist Alternative candidate and won 29 percent of the vote, shocking observers. She carried her momentum to her campaign for the Seattle City Council, for which she eventually defeated a 16-year incumbent Democrat to become the first socialist elected in a major US city in decades.

She narrowly survived a recall election in December 2021, the first Seattle saw since 1975, by a thin margin of 310 votes, or 0.76 percent. 

Sawant is a teacher, a socialist activist, and organiser and has campaigned in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers' International.

Importance of the Bill

The significance of the legislation lies in the fact that it recognises and addresses a form of discrimination that is often overlooked in the United States. Moreover, it not only acknowledges the existence of caste-based discrimination but also takes concrete steps to prevent and protect people against casteism.

The proposed ordinance officially adds caste to its civil rights laws, prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, and also includes protection against discriminatory practices in public spaces, places of employment, housing, and contracting.

It will ban discrimination based on caste in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, public transportation, public restrooms, or retail establishments.

The law will also prohibit housing discrimination based on caste in rental housing leases, property sales, and mortgage loans, the statement by Kshama Sawant said. 

The bill's passage is a significant victory for the South Asian American community, who have long advocated for the recognition of caste-based discrimination in the United States.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Seattle   Caste Discrimantion 

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