Caste describes racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system. America is like the caste systems of Nazi Germany and modern India. African-Americans are considered lower in society’s hierarchy. Subsequently, they are excluded from certain opportunities, included with certain negative labels, and considered impure. These characteristics drive the worse social and economic outcomes for African-Americans, the taboo surrounding interracial relationships, and many more social issues. Isabel Wilkerson explains why race is an arbitrary concept introduced based on racist ideas. We are all far more genetically similar than we think. Skin color has been arbitrarily used to form a caste system in America and parts of Europe. Caste was chosen to be part of Oprah Winfrey’s 2020 book club.
About Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson studies journalism at Howard University. Here she became the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, The Hilltop. Subsequently, she obtained internships at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Isabel became the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Additionally, she has also won the National Humanities Medal. Her debut work, The Warmth of Other Suns, won several awards. It was also shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Structural Problems Persist
“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”– Isabel Wilkerson
Structural problems will become gradually more challenging to fix the longer they are left unaddressed. The authors explain this point by using the analogy of inheriting an old house that needs considerable structural work. Suppose you notice a crack in the ceiling but decide to just leave it, as you believe it is merely superficial cosmetic damage. Subsequently, this crack continues to grow until a specialist identifies damage to the integrity of the foundation of your home. Clearly, these problems were caused by mistakes made by those building the house. However, this does not mean these structural problems are not your responsibility. You have the responsibility to identify these mistakes as wrong and remove them from the foundations. Otherwise, these problems will just fester and become worse.
As with this house, structural problems within your country are unlikely to be a direct cause of you. However, the author argues this does not mean you shouldn’t take responsibility for these problems. You now live within this ‘home’ filled with structural problems. Importantly, if you keep passing the blame and avoiding these problems they will only grow bigger. Then, it will be even more challenging for future generations to eradicate these structural problems.
America is now over three hundred years old. Hence, the structural problems apparent at the inception of the country are becoming increasingly influential. Specifically, Isabel Wilkerson talks about drastic income gaps, ongoing police violence, and issues with healthcare highlighted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Caste’s Influence on Systemic Racism
Isabel Wilkerson outlines we can only truly understand the structural problem of systemic racism present today by considering caste. Caste has allowed systemic racism to be particularly resistant to change. Caste is a social hierarchy in which people experience varying degrees of superiority. Subsequently, some individuals will experience subjugation purely based on the caste to which they belong.
A caste system has been used for thousands of years within India. However, American society has also had a caste system since its inception. Caste systems essentially mean that being born into poverty significantly increases your chances of living in poverty for the entirety of your life. Similarly, if you are born into wealth, then you will have greater opportunities to continue creating wealth.
India has attempted to pass legislation to reduce the discrimination associated with their caste system. Despite this, prejudice against the lower classes still exists. For example, the Dalit people are those in the lowest tier within the caste system. These individuals are frequent victims of acts of violence and are treated as outcasts in their own country. This caste system has existed in India since Ancient India thousands of years ago. Therefore, it has become increasingly challenging to remove it from society.
Colonized America has a significantly shorter history than India. Despite this, a caste system is still concrete and has been since its founding. In America, African-Americans have been placed in the lowest caste since day one. African-Americans have fought to be free from this caste system for centuries to no avail. The power is with the ‘dominant’ caste of white Americans who seek to maintain the status quo within the system. The dominant caste will avoid change as they are currently benefiting from the structure of society.
Caste and Slavery
Generally, people get class and caste confused. As Isabel Wilkerson states, class can be easily transcended through marriage or employment. However, there is no viable way of escaping the caste you have been placed in at birth. Isabel also points out that racism and casteism are not equivalent. There can be significant overlap between these two forms of prejudice. However, race is a relatively new concept while caste has been present in society for thousands of years. The reason these two prejudices are often conflated is that the US’ caste system has been built around ideas of racial superiority and inferiority.
The author explains the idea of race was first introduced during the transatlantic slave trade. Race was used as a way of categorizing the people that European colonists experienced. Crucially, this use of race was a way of excluding certain people within society. Despite this, race is a pseudo-scientific concept. The author provides an example of the origin of the term Caucasian. She explains that Johann Blumenbach, a German professor of medicine, was credited as coining the term Caucasian. He had a passion for collecting and analyzing human skulls. In 1795, he found what he considered the best shaped skull that came from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. Subsequently, due to European society’s belief that they were genetically superior, Blumenbach gave Europeans the name Caucasian.
The mapping of the human genome in 2000 made it clearer than ever that race was arbitrary. All humans could be traced back to a handful of tribes originating in Africa. Despite this, race has still been used to categorize people based on arbitrary features, such as height, hair color, or eye color. In America, skin color became the feature that determined caste lines.
Jim Crow Laws
There have been attempts post-slavery to include African-Americans within the white caste. However, instead of creating a genuine positive change, Jim Crow Laws were introduced in the late 19th century. Southern leaders were encouraged to introduce reconstruction efforts. Freed slaves would have a path to equality. Instead, Jim Crow Laws were established that created a new type of slavery. By introducing these laws, the government was actively aiming to maintain the caste system.
These laws were associated with segregation and a constant threat of violence and lynching. These threats helped keep African-Americans at the bottom of the caste system as they were dissuaded from changing their circumstances. For example, African-Americans attempting to start their own business or to move North were often blocked by people in higher castes. For example, Black people were kept out of higher-caste neighborhoods through redlining.
Redlining was a nationwide policy of denying financing and movement between zones for people from predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Foundational Pillars of Casteism
The caste system has a foundation of eight pillars.
- Divine Will and the Laws of Nature – The caste system within India is based on religious teachings. Specifically, ancient Hindu texts explain Manu, an all-knowing being who explained a social order within society. Additionally, due to their religious beliefs, society believed that people deserved their lower caste level due to karma from a previous life. The American caste system is also based on a religious foundation. Within the Bible, Noah has one son named Ham. One day, Ham walked into a tent and accidentally saw Noah naked. Subsequently, Noah cursed Ham’s son, Canaan. Hence, some biblical interpreters suggest Ham had black skin.
- Heritability – Essentially, this pillar suggests you are born into a specific caste. However, there are also specific rules within this. For example, colonial America stated it was the mother’s caste status that dictated the caste of their children.
- Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating – Endogamy suggests that people should marry their caste. Within India, this is brutally enforced. Within America today, society has made interracial relationships a taboo. However, historically, any suggestion of a Black man touching a White woman would have been met by a lynching.
- Purity Versus Pollution – Individuals from a lower caste have been consistently considered polluters. This is the same idea propagated in Nazi Germany. In America, whole swimming pools would be drained and cleaned if an African-American was known to have been in a swimming pool.
- Occupational Hierarchy – There are menial jobs within society that few people want to complete. There is a history of politicians stating that the Black ‘race’ are the best fit for these jobs.
- Dehumanization and Stigma – Humans naturally understand we are all human beings and no better or worse than the next. Hence, we struggle to dehumanize individuals. Instead, we aim our dehumanization to large groups of people. This is exactly how the Nazis dehumanized the entire Jewish community and the same dehumanization is taking place in the US with African-Americans. In both countries, the people in the lowest castes were subjected to medical experiments and tortured for the amusement of the dominant castes. For example, at amusement parks in the US, there were “Son of Ham” shows. At these shows, people could pay money to throw baseballs at a Black man’s head. In this way and others, generations were desensitized to racial violence.
- Terror and Cruelty – Caste is perpetuated by using terror as enforcement and cruelty as a means of control. Violence has been used on African-Americans as a way of producing control and providing warnings. For example, American slave owners would deliver as many as four hundred whippings. These whippings were public, as were hangings and burnings. Those in the higher castes wanted the lower caste to imagine what could happen to them if they stepped out of line. Although some might wish to believe that hangings and burnings stopped with the slave trade, these practices actually continued into the twentieth century.
- Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority – There are several unspoken expectations within society relating to caste. Within India, the Dalit are expected to wear poorly kept clothing to reflect their inferiority. Similarly, lower-caste people in America are expected to move out of the way if a dominant caste person is walking past.
Monuments Either Support or Dismantle Caste
All humans are susceptible to propaganda. Adolf Hitler was cheered by mass crowds of Germans. We may tell ourselves that we wouldn’t be one of those people, but it is impossible for us to say this. We naturally fall into a position within society and it can take considerable courage to stand up to the majority of society.
Additionally, although Nazi Germany is viewed as an independent evil, the Nazis actually took significant inspiration from America. They wrote their laws, including racial segregation and punishment, based on the existing US laws. In fact, they even made decisions about what people were allowed to wear based on the US’ laws at the time. Isabel Wilkerson explains that the tides have turned. Now, the US needs to learn from modern, democratic Germany.
Monuments are one way that America is continuing to encourage a caste system. In 2015, there were still 230 memorials to Robert E. Lee. He was the commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 2015, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu set in motion an effort to take down one of General Lee’s statues. This sparked angry debate from Confederate sympathizers. However, Richard Westmoreland, a retired lieutenant colonel, explained that Germany was ashamed by their equivalent general, Erwin Rommel. Instead of putting statues up of generals who perpetuated casteism, Germany erected memorials for the victims of the Nazis. In fact, Berlin is filled with individual names embedded on the sidewalks of the homes where Jewish victims were taken. This approach humanizes these victims and prevents them from becoming a number. This is generally accepted as the most positive way of utilizing statues and monuments. In America, there were several death threats sent to the contractors who were offered the job of removing the statue in New Orleans.
The Caste System Remains Post-Obama
Obama’s two terms in power are often considered a turning point in American history. For some, these political events were a sign of a country that had removed its systemic racism. However, Wilkerson highlights this impact was fictional. Obama’s presidency was merely a fantasy of a turning point rather than a turning point itself.
How Can We Break Down the Pillars?
Isabel Wilkerson ends the book by outlining how readers can start to dismantle the pillars of casteism. COVID-19 has only re-surfaced the presence of a caste system within America. Those within dominant castes have benefited from health-care insurance offered through their jobs. In comparison, those in lower castes have had to continue working with no healthcare coverage. The statistics from the pandemic have shown it is disproportionately deadlier to marginalized communities.
Here are the tips that Isabel Wilkerson provides on how you can start breaking down the pillars of caste:
- Make people aware of the presence of a caste system within the US.
- Support people who have managed to break free from their subordinate castes.
- See people as individuals with ideas in common rather than part of a homogeneous group. This should help prevent dehumanization.
- Vote with an awareness of how the caste system is currently dominating politics.
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