Caste- The cruelest pyramid scheme
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson 2020
There are three glaring examples in history of castes that divided nations- India, with its complex caste system, Nazi Germany, with its much more violent system that subjugated all Jewish people, and the United States, where African slaves and their descendants were designated to sub-human status for 250 years (and then some). What did these three inhuman social constructs do to the societies that allowed them, and how do castes still endure today? What is lost as a society when systems like these are tolerated? Can centuries of division be healed and reconciled, or are we doomed to forever divide ourselves into camps of privilege and oppression?
These are just some of the questions that come up in Isabel Wilkerson's excellent bestselling book, Caste- the origins of our discontents. In the book, Wilkerson looks at all three recent examples of caste systems- India, Germany, and the US, with special emphasis on the US and its tolerance of slavery and Jim Crow. Wilkerson uses a barrage of historical examples to make her point, while interweaving her own experiences as a black woman in America. This is the best book on race that I've ever read, and though most of the stories were familiar to me, the grisly details made me want to disown the white race that I am a part of. (Actually, America is the only place where white or black races exist according to this book. In Africa, there are tribes and nationalities, but no unified black race, and in Europe there are ethnicities and nationalities, but no unified white race. The United States perfected racial politics in pursuit of its unique caste system.
The caste system of India is believed to have started around 1500 BC when lighter-skinned Europeans began arriving. Indian society began stratifying based on skin tone, with the lighter skinned being designated the Brahmans ,or upper-caste, and the darkest skinned demoted to the bottom of society. Known as the Dalets or Untouchables, the lowest caste members were stuck with the least desirable jobs and least amount of power. Indian castes were finally outlawed in 1950, but the practices of discrimination continue. Even today, Indians are constantly judging each other based on family surname, skin color, and job title, and even in America those of the upper caste feel entitled to superior treatment than those they deem below them.
The Nazi's in Germany used Jewish people, (as well as gypsies, homosexuals, and a few others), as convenient scapegoats for various economic woes and Germany's loss in World War 2. They took this division to its extremes with the Holocaust, consigning Jewish families to forced labor or death camps. Caste tells the tale of a 1934 meeting when the Germans were first drawing up their plans for racial domination, and the sickening fact was that much of their inspiration came from America and our treatment of minorities. The Nazi's used examples and teachings from American racists as a template to figure out how to divide their people. Then they took it to extremes, looking for racial purity at every turn, where even girls with curly black hair were suspect and shunned.
Which brings us to America, whose slavery and caste system began in Virginia in 1619 when the first Africans were brought over. They had tried to enslave Native Americans without too much luck, but the practice of slavery was so successful at breaking the spirit of its African participants that it spread and prospered for over 250 years. Some here still believe that the slaves were better off being owned and controlled than free and poverty-stricken. The superiority of the white race was so strongly ingrained into America in its first years that we still struggle today with any challenges to our de-facto caste system. The protests of people today that "I'm not a racist, but..." shows that no matter how much we deny it, the long history of America's caste system has deep roots in our psyches.
Wilkerson presents what she calls the 8 pillars of caste that kept these unfair systems stable and dominant.
1- Castes are part of divine will and the laws of nature.
2- Heritability. All caste positions are determined at birth.
3- Endogamy. Caste members must marry and reproduce within their caste and never intermarry.
4- Purity. The dominant caste is pure and can only be polluted by contact with "dirty" others. (This explains a lot of the paranoia in the South about sharing swimming pools, rest rooms, water fountains, or just about anything with black people.)
5- Occupational Hierarchy. All work must be divided and performed by the designated caste members. Lower castes are forbidden from many lines of work besides manual labor.
6- Dehumanization and Stigma. Those in the lower castes are robbed of their individual identities. They are seen as stereotypes and not as unique.
7- Terror of enforcement. Cruelty is used to keep lower castes in line. (The stories in this book of whipping, hanging, burning, and tortures endured by blacks from whites are infuriating.)
8- Inherent superiority. Forbidding of lower caste members to behave the same as others. No eye contact, no fancy clothing, no talking back or "putting on airs". Acting above your station could mean reprisals, beatings, or death.
Wilkerson goes on to explain how important caste is to those near the bottom. Poor whites need someone to look down on so that they can feel better about their low status. Racism provides that convenient outlet and explains the rise in racist behavior among rural and working-class white people. Dominant group status threat is a term that describes the reaction that these people are having when seeing minorities succeed or appear to improve their lots in any way. Death of despair among white people have been blamed on this phenomenon, because so much of their identity and value has been tied up into being superior to the people they believe to be below them. As that reality becomes threatened, those near the bottom of the rung lash out at those below them, not those at the top who are too powerful to confront.
The stories in Caste are depressing and believable when it comes to insecure white people lashing out to protect their artificial, protected status. These types of stories need to be shared more- not to shame white people for sins of the past but to make them reconsider what the pathway of pride and hate turned their ancestors into.
- In Boston a man murdered his wife and blamed it on an random black person, and everybody believed him until evidence proved him a liar.
- White soldiers returning from World War I found that many blacks had migrated to their Northern cities to compete for jobs while they were gone. This produced Red Summer, when hundreds of blacks were killed in race riots all over America. The race riot in Tulsa in 1921 is one of the most notorious.
- Black men were routinely lynched after the Civil War for even the appearance of "uppity" behavior or interest in white women. After Reconstruction ended in the 1870's, white former slave-owners in the South doubled down on asserting their racial superiority even after losing the Civil War, and the violent stories are sickening. The idea that people went to lynchings back then, took photographs of dead black people, and made postcards out of them to share with others, was probably the most disgusting thing that Wilkerson describes in the book.
- And of course there is the current day of 2020, when black people have been killed by white policemen for minor infractions, and white women have threatened to call police on black people who were wrongly perceived to be a threat or in the wrong place.
Wilkerson tells the sad story of Satchel Paige, one of the best baseball pitchers ever, who was relegated to the Negro leagues for most of his career. She talks about the French soldiers in World War I who were berated for treating Black American soldiers as equals. She devotes an entire chapter to how the extra stresses of being in a permanent lower caste actually sickens and kills people of color. This book is relentless in its truth and powerful ideas.
The sad fact is that even for the winners of a caste system, they are losers. We all lose when society is stratified rigidly by race or other factors. Everything becomes a zero sum game, where if one side wins, the other will lose. Fear, insecurity, and suspicion rule and every issue becomes a racial issue in one way or another. The lowest caste must be kept down at all costs, even if that means keeping everybody down. Raising the minimum wage or providing healthcare is opposed if it's seen as benefiting the lower caste too much. Focus on race rewards mediocre people at the top and punishes talented people at the bottom, causing many talents to be wasted and squandered before they can ever be expressed.
After the Brown vs Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, some districts in Virginia shut down completely for years rather than allow black people in their schools. Cities closed swimming pools and paved them over rather than give in to edicts that they had to integrate. And today some citizens seem ready to throw away democracy entirely if it means that people of color might win free elections and take away some of their long-held caste advantages.
Americans cling to their caste system much tighter than the Germans did to theirs. There are no monuments to Hitler or the Nazi's in Germany- only monuments to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet in America we still fight over monuments to Confederate heroes like Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis, and the Confederate Flag still flies proudly in many areas.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump was a last frantic attempt by white America to take us back to the good old days of the segregated 1950's. Trump's open racism against Muslims, Hispanics, and anyone deemed lower-caste was a reaction to the perception that demographics are changing and white dominance is threatened. By 2042, white Americans will be in the minority, a fact that will define what happens in the next two decades. Do white people go down killing and screaming, or do they reconsider the entire caste system and white privilege they currently count on?
This is an important book on a topic that will only get more pressing as society confronts racism and caste thinking in the years ahead. Castes are a disease on humanity, says Wilkerson, and we pay a high price for tolerating them. Humans are much more alike than they are different. Being able to define yourself based on who you are inside seems much more liberating than relying on position on the totem pole to judge your own worth.