After the racial protests of 2020, I began reading to learn more about racism in America. The most informative book I have read so far is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Part One of the book begins with a powerful analogy. In 2016, a heat wave hit the Russian peninsula of Yamal. So many children were getting sick from a mysterious illness, the authorities declared a state of emergency. Then scientists discovered that the extreme heat had eroded the permafrost, exposing Anthrax, a toxin that had been buried in the carcasses of reindeer since 1941.
Racism is a toxic pathogen. For much of my life, I believed that America had largely buried it. But just as unusually hot weather in Siberia exposed long-buried anthrax spores, rising heat in human hearts exposed long-denied racism in the United States. What reignited the flames? Wilkens pointed to one catalyst: the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection that by 2042, the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation.
The prevalence of racism today is often attributed to institutional or systemic racism, the embedded social practices that lead to discrimination against people of color. According to Wikipedia, the term institutional racism was first used in 1967 in the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Institutional racism is much more subtle and harder to detect than individual racism. Today many whites quickly condemn individual racism as immoral but are not so quick to condemn the racist practices embedded in our culture.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India, he was introduced to a group of high school students as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” King was surprised and a bit peeved to be described as an untouchable. But he realized it was true; he and other black people had been consigned to the lowest caste in America for centuries.
A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.Isabel Wilkerson
Years ago, missionaries visited my church to talk about the Dalits, India’s lowest caste, once known as the “untouchables.” We were given clay cups to remind us of the daily oppression of the Dalit people, who aren’t allowed to drink from the same cups as people in the higher castes. The oppression of the Dalits seemed like an other world problem. Now I realize that caste is very much a part of my world. It is not a foreign problem.
In Caste, Wilkerson draws parallels between the unnamed caste system of the United States and those of India and Nazi Germany. As described by Wilkerson, the upper caste consists of white people of European descent, the middle caste is made up of Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, and the lower or bottom caste is made up of black people of African descent. White people have historically been the dominant caste, the favored caste, the ruling majority. Black people have historically been the subordinate caste, the disfavored caste, the powerless minority.
In another powerful analogy, Wilkerson compared America to the stage of a long-running play.
The actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them. The people in these roles are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being, to merge the assignment with their inner selves and how they are seen in the world.Isabel Wilkerson, Caste
White people have become accustomed to our dominant roles. We take little notice of the people in the back unless they try to veer from the script; then we step in and put them in their place. If they protest too much, we silence them.
Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.A native of India
The American caste system is a tragedy. As a nation, we have an ugly, horrific history of dehumanizing people based on the color of their skin. And although those of us living today did not create this system, we inherited it and may unwittingly play a role in keeping it in place.
The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity….A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows.Isabel Wilkerson
Today, we can see the American caste system at work in the restrictive voting laws that are being enacted all over the country. I believe that these bills are designed to keep the ruling majority in power. Others have pointed out the symbolism of the governor of Georgia signing a bill that restricts voting rights while surrounded by white men standing in front of a painting of a slave plantation.
I agree with Wilkerson that understanding the American caste system may be the key to dismantling it. In part three of her book, Wilkerson describes what she calls the eight pillars of caste, the beliefs and practices that keep a caste system in place. I will reflect on each of these pillars in future posts.
Photo by Daniel Born on Unsplash