In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson wrote about the pillars of caste systems – beliefs that uphold a system of hierarchy. In a caste system, those in the upper caste(s) believe that those in the lower caste(s) are naturally inferior and were born to play a subordinate role in society. Wilkerson called the second pillar of caste heritability. Heritability is a measure of how well differences in genes account for differences in traits. When a trait can be passed on through genetics, it is heritable.
Wilkerson wrote that unlike social class, caste is a fixed measure of a person’s standing. A person can move from a lower to a higher class through ingenuity, education, and/or hard work. “If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste.” In a caste system, even upper class people are subjected to “humiliating attempts to put them in their place.” In a caste system, people are labeled based on the way they look on the outside and that label determines what they can and cannot do in society. Sadly, the label is often out of sync with the person inside.
Even the most accomplished people of color are disrespected by whites. Wilkerson told a personal story about going to a retail store in Chicago to interview the store manager for a news article. She arrived early for her appointment. When the manager arrived, she went up to him to introduce herself. The manager told her he couldn’t speak to her because he was running late for an appointment. When she told him that she worked for The New York Times and was there to interview him, he didn’t believe her, even when she showed him her ID.
Wilkerson noted that all human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup, a fact confirmed by the Human Genome Project. The differences we see result from a tiny fraction of our DNA. Skin color, hair texture, and facial features are heritable, but physical traits are arbitrary ways of discriminating between human beings.
Wilkerson wrote about a school teacher who, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to teach her students what it is like to be judged on the basis of an arbitrary trait. She divided the students into two groups based on eye color. She told the kids that people with brown eyes are not as good as people with blue eyes. She told them that brown-eyed people are slower and not as smart as blue-eyed people. The students with brown eyes were not allowed to drink from the water fountain and were not allowed to go to recess with the blue-eyed students. The teacher noticed an immediate change in the students’ behavior. Those in the disfavored group under-performed in their schoolwork.
All men must have been created equal; most certainly they are not all alike. The idea of equality derives from ethics; similarity and dissimilarity are observable facts. Human equality is not predicated on biological identity, not even on identity of ability. People need not be identical twins to be equal before the law, or to be entitled to an equality of opportunity.Theodosius Dobzhansky
Even when presented with living proof that people in the lower caste are intelligent, talented, equal human beings, the upper caste persists in denying the lower caste the full benefits of their humanity. As the geneticist Dobzhansky said, human equality is not predicated on biological identity. Human equality is based on our identity as beings created in the image of God.
Whatever black people can do, white people can do. Let me repeat that. Whatever black people can do, white people can do. If this sounds strange, it is because we are so accustomed to pretending that white people set the standard for human achievement. This is not true.
Let’s tear down this pillar of the American caste system.
Unequal by nature: a geneticist’s perspective on human differences
How Heritability Misleads about Race
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