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.

How will the Church respond this time?

I don’t know if my pastor realized it, but he was on trial today, the first Sunday after the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history. I read comments this week on social media from purported Christians that were quite disturbing. So at 9:00 am this morning, I was anxious to find out if my church would respond in a way that is consistent with the word of God. I wanted to know, 1) will my pastor acknowledge this tragedy and 2) will he guide his flock to respond in a way that is consistent with God’s word?

My pastor is preaching a series of sermons based on a book of the Bible that he had never preached on before – the book of Obadiah. At one chapter, it is the shortest book in the Old Testament so it is understandable that it would be overlooked. It proved to be relevant to our times this week. Obadiah delivered a message from God to the people of Edom. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. Obadiah predicted that God would destroy Edom for not aiding its northern neighbor, Israel (descendants of Jacob).

Pastor Brad used the book of Obadiah to make three points that are relevant to our own nation. One, the people were prideful and self-centered (verse 3). Two, God was not happy about their violence (verse 10) and three, the people were aloof or indifferent to the suffering of others (verse 11).

My pastor assured the congregation that the church does take measures to protect our safety. The church pays for the county sheriff to come to the services and sit outside. I see them, not just guiding traffic, but sometimes coming in and walking down the children’s wing. He said there are panic buttons or alarms in different places that can be used to summon help quickly.

I am happy to say that Pastor Brad did not tell us to come to church armed. If he had said that, I would have walked out. Instead, he had us sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” He gave us scriptures about not fearing, like 1 John 4:18. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

My pastor did not lay the blame for the tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas on guns. He admitted that he owns a gun himself. He said that the problem is a heart problem and not a problem of weapons. I acknowledge that there is some truth to this argument. There is something very wrong with the hearts of Americans. In some situations, we can be very compassionate. For example, witness the American response to natural disasters or the illness of a stranger.

But when it comes to the right to own the weapons that take 33,000 lives a year, many Americans turn into rabid defenders of inanimate objects. They are so afraid of losing the right to bear arms that they won’t consider even commonsense controls to protect us from the worst and most sick among us. Why is that? When did this nation become so hard-hearted and self-centered and fearful?

More importantly, when did so-called Evangelicals become so hard-hearted, self-centered and fearful? We’re supposed to be a light in the darkness and I’m sorry to say that we are not. I had to admit that truth to myself a year ago when I saw that the majority of “Christians” were willing to cast aside everything that Jesus taught us in exchange for political power.

My pastor did lay some of the blame for violence, and rightly so, on individualism. Individualism defines American culture. Pride defines American culture. Violence defines American culture. But Christianity is not based on individualism. It is not based on pride or violence.

I said my pastor was on trial today because I was watching him to see evidence of something different. I didn’t want to hear NRA or Fox News talking points. I wanted to see light in the darkness. I wanted to see hope. I wanted to hear the word of God preached. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

The world is watching all of us who claim to follow Jesus. Jesus is not prideful and self-centered. Jesus is not violent. Jesus is not aloof and indifferent to pain and suffering. When we are tested by trials of these times, how will we respond?