On February 21, Seattle became the first city outside South Asia to officially recognize “caste” as a form of discrimination. The ordinance approved by the Seattle City Council adds “caste” as an anti-discrimination category along with race, religion and gender. Just as with the latter, it bans caste-based biases and discrimination in public settings, including housing and employment.
Is caste relevant in the US?
Several people have argued that discrimination on the basis of caste exists, including in subtle forms, in parts of the economy like the IT industry. The fact that the ordinance has been passed in Seattle – home to Microsoft, Amazon and a host of other major tech firms – hasn’t gone unnoticed. It is no secret that the IT industry is dominated by workers of South Asian origin.
According to a non-profit organization called the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, Asians, including South Asians, hold 40.5% of technical roles in Silicon Valley’s top 20 companies. Moreover, the CEOs of some of the biggest IT firms are of Indian origin. Using data from the American Community Survey provided by the US Census Bureau, they show that in the IT hubs of Santa Clara and San Mateo county in California, in 2021, 27% of the workforce in the IT industry was from India.
Caste is a South Asian phenomenon. Therefore, if one were to be concerned about its negative consequences, it would be in sectors of the economy where South Asians are present in large numbers. This has sparked a debate, especially among the Indian diaspora in the US and elsewhere on the relevance of such a law. In fact, Seattle is just the test case. Similar legislation may follow in other places.
Interestingly, before we lay out the pros and cons associated with this debate it is worth providing some evidence about cultural transmission and immigrants. Economists have argued that immigrants often bring with them the culture of their home countries. In a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2007, Ray Fisman and Ed Miguel show that diplomats stationed in New York City from more corrupt countries have significantly more parking violations than their counterparts from less corrupt countries. Similar differences have also been documented in math performance in schools by children of immigrants from different countries depending on the math training in the home country. In other words, cultural transmission of behavior is known to happen among immigrants.
Going back to the caste debate, proponents of the law argue that currently victims of caste bias in the US have no legal recourse against employers or co-workers engaging in such discrimination. Those not in favor argue that there is no necessity for such a law since caste discrimination is not there in the US. If anything, it makes caste salient and drags it back into the lives of people who left India to escape it. There are also some who say that an explicit law banning caste-based discrimination would be ultimately counterproductive if it discourages employers from hiring South Asians. Most employers wouldn’t even be aware of it, given the absence of real data or research pointing to widespread caste-based discrimination in the US.
Discrimination in a fast-moving world
In examining the recently passed law, one must first understand what discrimination is. Suppose, we put people into different groups based either on some observable or unobservable characteristics. Then, if we treat two individuals who are identical in every respect, except one of these characteristics, it amounts to discrimination. Discrimination could be positive like special coaches for women in a train, quotas in jobs for certain communities or higher savings rates for senior citizens. It could also be negative like offering someone a lower wage because of their gender or denying someone housing because of their ethnicity or religion.
Of course, it’s negative discrimination that we have to worry about. Negative caste-based discrimination would imply that an individual was treated in a negative way because of their caste either in the sphere of hiring (not hired) or wage offers (lower wages) or promotion (denied promotion). More generally, this could also imply differential treatment of individuals in non-employment related areas like in access to housing. However, for caste-based discrimination, the primary concerns are in the context of the labor market.
Human societies have a long history of discriminatory practices based on various characteristics. While some of these have been near universal such as gender discrimination, others have differed across societies. For instance, racial discrimination continues to be an issue in the Western world, while caste discrimination is typically prevalent in South Asia. Most democracies seek to provide constitutional protection to their citizens against discriminatory practices.
However, newer forms of discrimination might emerge or reveal themselves over time. One such example is sexuality-based discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community. While it is arguably more common now, as people become more open about their sexuality, US laws have also been updated to protect these people from discrimination. Similarly, with the migration of large numbers of South Asians, caste-based discrimination may well have arrived at America’s doorstep. So, new laws might be necessary to contend with it.
Seattle’s ordinance can be seen as a part of this effort. The argument for whether to include a new category in the law protecting against discrimination cannot be based simply on the magnitude of the discriminatory act – that is a matter of implementation. The law must protect citizens against the act itself. In India, Article 15 of the constitution states: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. Now, race-based discrimination is not widespread in India though occasionally one reads reports about attacks on people from Africa. Yet India provides protection to people based on their race and in this regard is already ahead of the US.
Similarly, as the population of South Asians in the US has grown along with a widening of their community profiles, caste as a category could become relevant. It increased from 2.2 million in 2000 to 5.4 million in 2017 according to the American Community Survey data provided by the US Census Bureau. Given that this is more than double the population in less than two decades, one can speculate that providing protection against caste-based discrimination in America is probably something that will become more commonplace. Implementation of such laws will, of course, require more awareness among Americans about caste and its nuances, just as many in India probably need to learn that not everyone from Nigeria is engaged in nefarious activities.
The biggest obstacles to implementing the law will be awareness about the caste system. First, note that caste is not an observable characteristic. Two identical-looking individuals could be from different castes making the identification and reporting of cases of caste-based discrimination harder than other types of discrimination associated with observable characteristics. Second, caste discrimination may be hard to identify. Caste hierarchy is predetermined, with the lowest castes generally having less power and lower socio-economic standing than the upper castes. Individuals from upper or higher castes are also more likely to have higher education and more wealth. These pre-existing differences between the groups will make it difficult to determine whether a particular act was discriminatory or not – just as it sometimes happens with discrimination based on race and gender. Therefore, implementing the new law will involve a deep understanding of the caste system requiring costly time and effort.
Epilogue: ChatGPT’s take
Given that Seattle is the IT hub and ChatGPT’s recent rise to stardom we decided that the last word should belong to ChatGPT. As a test, we asked it to provide us with an essay on the History of Discrimination in Human Societies, reproduced here verbatim:
Discrimination has been a persistent issue throughout human history. It has taken many forms and has been based on a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and class. Discrimination has been perpetuated through laws, social norms, and individual biases, and has often resulted in unequal treatment and opportunities for marginalized groups.
One of the most well-known examples of discrimination in history is the system of slavery that was practiced in many parts of the world, particularly in the Americas. Slavery involved the forced labor of individuals who were considered property rather than human beings, and was justified through racist beliefs that certain groups of people were inherently inferior to others.
Another example of discrimination in history is the treatment of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. Indigenous peoples were often displaced from their land, forced to assimilate to the dominant culture, and subjected to violence and exploitation.
Discrimination has also been present in many other forms throughout history, including the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ individuals, religious minorities, and individuals with disabilities. While progress has been made in some areas, discrimination continues to be a pervasive issue in many parts of the world. Efforts to combat discrimination and promote equality remain ongoing.
This 200-word essay does not even mention “caste”, even though this institution is as old as slavery. We speculate ChatGPT, at the end of the day, is not quite up to date on non-Western knowledge! It scored approximately in the 90th percentile in the SAT and got 88% in the LSAT. However, it did not do very well in the UPSC exams that are used to screen candidates for the bureaucracy in India. Like the fight against caste discrimination, ChatGPT still has miles to go.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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