Bloomberg Law
Feb. 22, 2023, 5:21 PMUpdated: Feb. 22, 2023, 10:10 PM

Seattle’s Caste Bias Bill Renews Calls for Federal Guidance (1)

Chris Marr
Chris Marr
Staff Correspondent

Seattle’s first-in-the-nation ordinance to ban caste bias takes on a murky area of civil rights law that some advocates have urged the EEOC to clarify—whether and to what extent federal law covers discrimination within the caste system.

The city council passed legislation Tuesday that adds caste to the protected categories in Seattle’s anti-discrimination law. The ordinance, which awaits the signature of Mayor Bruce Harrell, would ban caste-related bias in employment, places of public accommodation, housing, and other settings.

The mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on whether he supports the measure.

The legislation defines caste as a “system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion.” The system affects an estimated 250 million people across the globe primarily living in or originating from South Asia.

Advocacy groups, including the International Commission on Dalit Rights, have pressed the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to offer guidance or a policy memorandum on the issue. These groups contended in a 2021 letter to the EEOC that caste discrimination should be treated as already covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, encompassed by other explicitly protected categories such as race or national origin.

There’s a strong argument that federal law and many state laws already prohibit discrimination based on caste, as it relates to a person’s ancestry and lineage, said Guha Krishnamurthi, a University of Oklahoma law professor who’s studied and written on the subject.

“The federal statute covers what is basically discrimination based on lineage. There are multiple ways that it does that,” he said.

The EEOC is limited in its ability to issue binding guidance on what categories are covered by Title VII, Krishnamurthi added, but it could take up caste-related discrimination claims and pursue them in court on workers’ behalf.

The commission hasn’t issued formal guidance on Title VII’s application to caste discrimination, spokeswoman Brandalyn Bickner said via email Wednesday.

Limited Case Law

Not many caste bias allegations have advanced through the courts to test whether Title VII or state laws cover this sort of bias. A California lawsuit pending against Cisco Systems Inc. could help determine whether California’s anti-discrimination laws protect against caste bias.

In the California case, a former employee claimed supervisors at Cisco’s San Jose headquarters excluded him from meetings and passed him up for promotions due to his status as part of the Dalit caste, considered the lowest rung of the hierarchical system. He also accused Cisco of retaliating against him after he complained about his treatment.

Cisco has disputed the discrimination claims, saying it investigated and found the worker was treated well, highly compensated, and offered roles on coveted projects.

The Seattle bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, said on Wednesday that her office and the council heard testimony from hundreds of workers who are in lower castes and have been affected by workplace discrimination.

“Many of these are from the tech sector, where caste-oppressed workers feel a little more emboldened to speak up about this, but there’s data to suggest it exists in other sectors of work,” she said.

The notion that existing law already protects against caste discrimination is mistaken because caste bias isn’t based on factors such as skin color or national origin, according to Sawant.

“It’s in fact a type of discrimination that manifests itself by a dominant-caste person of South Asian background inflicting caste discrimination on an oppressed-caste person of the same background,” she said. A supervisor committing the discrimination “might have the same or similar skin color. They’re probably going to have the exact same nationality.”

Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, pushed for the Seattle ordinance and said Tuesday it aims to advocate for more caste discrimination protections throughout the US.

US Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) also praised the Seattle ordinance in a statement distributed by Equality Labs following its passage.

“Caste discrimination has no place in society anywhere in the world, including here in America,” Jayapal said.

‘Singling Out’ Hindus

The Hindu American Foundation raised worries that the new Seattle policy singles out Hindus and other South Asians for different treatment under the law while trying to address a problem the group says is rare in the US.

“We fundamentally believe everyone should treated in accordance with the equal worth of every individual,” Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said Wednesday. But the categories covered in existing anti-discrimination laws are “broad enough and facially neutral enough to provide protection without singling out any one particular community.”

Because caste is a category traditionally associated with Indian and some Asian cultures, explicitly adding it to anti-discrimination law implies that people of those origins are prone to be not only the victims but also the ones discriminating, she said.

Even if caste discrimination is already covered by existing anti-discrimination laws, policies such as Seattle’s ordinance can have a positive effect by raising awareness to help stamp out a form of bias that isn’t well understood in the US, according to Krishnamurthi.

“It’s not all about what the law covers and doesn’t cover,” he said. “A big part of it is this public education feature.”

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at; Laura D. Francis at

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