Seattle on Tuesday became the first city in the United States to ban discrimination based on caste when city council members voted 6-1 to add such protections to existing laws.

Supporters of the move argued it was necessary because caste discrimination isn’t clearly covered by faith- or ethnicity-based protections. Laws needed to explicitly guard against unfair treatment based on someone’s lineage, they said.

“Just because we have a small population that is experiencing (caste discrimination) that doesn’t make it any less important,” said Council Member Lisa Herbold to The Associated Press.

Critics of the new protections, on the other hand, claimed they were unnecessary and could lead to increased suspicion of people of South Asian descent.

Council Member Sara Nelson, who voted against the caste-based protections, described the legal change as “reckless” and “harmful” in an interview with The Associated Press.

What is caste discrimination?

Caste refers to an ancient social categorization system that sorts people based on the family they’re born into. “Its history, evolution and current state are complicated,” noted The Associated Press’ explainer on the topic.

The caste system is generally associated with Hinduism and India, but forms of it exist in other places and faiths. “Caste can be found in other countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and in the diaspora worldwide, and in faith communities including Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs,” The Associated Press reported.

In places where the caste system is still enforced, caste can determine everything from who someone marries to career opportunities. Societal status is determined by factors outside of a person’s control.

Although tensions exist throughout the caste system, the people who suffer the most under it are “those at the bottom of the caste pyramid — known as Dalits, which in Sanskrit means ‘broken,’” The Associated Press reported. Members of the Dalit community can get stuck in demeaning jobs and have few places to turn for help.

Why did Seattle ban caste discrimination?

Much of the debate in Seattle centered on the experiences of the Dalit community. Those who advocated for the new ordinance said it would reduce the discrimination they face.

“It’s a powerful message that Dalit people are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, to The Associated Press.

Others questioned whether casted-based discrimination is common enough in Seattle to make caste-based protections necessary. They expressed concern that the new ordinance would lead to a backlash against the South Asian community.

“I fear with this law, businesses will be afraid to hire South Asians,” said Sanjay Patel, a tech company owner from the Seattle area, to The Associated Press.

Although Seattle is the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination, such bans are becoming more common within American institutions.

“In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first U.S. college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. The California State University System, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union,” The Associated Press reported.