Pillars of Caste: Terror and Cruelty

Several months ago, I committed myself to writing about the eight pillars of caste systems identified by Isabel Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Pillar number seven is one I would prefer not to think about – Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control. I abhor the cruel tactics used by dominant castes to exert control over subordinate castes.

The Holocaust and the enslavement of Blacks both provide ample evidence of the dominant caste using its power to cruelly enforce caste hierarchy. To control the subordinate caste, unimaginable horrors were inflicted on human bodies – genocide, kidnapping, starvation, whippings, hanging, branding, rape, etc.

Black slaves were brutally punished for minor infractions or breaches of caste. Wilkerson told the story of a slave owner who criticized a slave for planting a crooked row of corn. When the slave replied by saying that as much corn grows in a crooked row as in a straight one, he was whipped to the brink of death.

Learning to read and write was a breach of the caste system, backed up by anti-literacy laws. Literacy represented power and social mobility. Literacy took away the justification for dehumanizing Blacks. Anyone caught teaching Blacks to read or write was punished. The slave was punished by whipping or amputation.

Making it illegal for black people to learn to read and write reinforced the notion that Africans were inferior to whites. In the antebellum South, literacy was a sign of intellectual development and, potentially, social mobility—in fact, many white southerners were illiterate, so it was imperative to prevent the blacks from learning to read in order to maintain the myth of white supremacy.

Encyclopedia.com, Literacy and Anti-Literacy Laws

It’s hard for me to imagine such cruelty. How can human beings inflict such pain and suffering? How can decent people stand by and do nothing when another person is being tortured?

Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing.

Isabel Wilkerson

Dehumanization (pillar number six) desensitizes people to the pain and suffering caused by inhumane practices. When a human being is seen as less than human, it is easier for some people to excuse cruelty. I personally don’t get it; only a hateful heart callously inflicts pain and suffering.

Wilkerson noted that all civil societies have laws against murder, rape, torture, assault and battery. Yet these acts have been permitted when committed against Black bodies.

Unfortunately, Emancipation did not bring an end to the atrocities inflicted on Blacks in America. Jennifer Rae Taylor, an attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, wrote an article describing the horrific injustices Blacks faced after Emancipation: A History of Tolerance for Violence Has Laid the Groundwork for Injustice Today.

Often committed in broad daylight and sometimes “on the courthouse lawn,” racial terror lynchings were directly tied to the history of enslavement and the re-establishment of white supremacy after the Civil War. These lynchings were also distinct from hangings and mob violence committed against white people because they were intended to terrorize entire black communities and enforce racial hierarchy.

Jennifer Rae Taylor

Vigilantes targeted Black men, accusing them of sexual assault or other crimes. Blacks “were presumed guilty and dangerous.” Allegations against Blacks were not investigated. Blacks were lynched without the benefit of a trial. Blacks were also lynched for fighting for political and economic equality.

Importantly, these lynchings were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes; they were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order. Lynchings were terrorism.

Jennifer Rae Taylor

Reflecting on this pillar of the caste system and America’s history of violence against Blacks helped me understand how we got to where we are today. From the brutal violence inflicted on slaves to vigilante lynchings of innocent black men to violence against Civil Rights activists to the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, we have a long history of using cruelty and terror to enforce the racial caste hierarchy. Jennifer Rae Taylor helped me see how the “criminalization of black identity” has been used to further dehumanize Blacks and to justify the unjust treatment of Blacks in our criminal justice system.

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