Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson
It’s been a while since I posted a review. The reason is that Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste with its Shakespearean tragedy sub-title is crammed with thought provoking content and illustrated with a cascade of personal and researched evidence. You have to stop and think after almost every chapter.
She chooses the term “caste” because she believes it goes deeper than race, skin tone, or religion in defining the hierarchy of human divisions that you are born into.
A strange derivational oddity is that the word “caste” itself, which we often associate with India comes from the Portuguese word “casta” meaning race or breed. It was applied by the Portuguese to the Hindu caste divisions they experienced when trading with India.
Wilkerson, a black woman with a widely varying background, concentrates on three main caste systems which she believes have stood out over time. The first and oldest is the still active, caste system of India. Second, is the tragic, officially vanquished but rising again, Nazi campaign against the Jews. And third, her primary target, the unspoken caste pyramid in America that has persisted into the present day despite the legal termination of slavery after the Civil War.
She enumerates three pillars of all caste systems. They are set down by God or a divine presence. You are born into the system and cannot easily rise out of it. And finally, there is a prohibition against marriage or propagation outside of any caste in order to avoid diluting or mixing the blood lines.
In discussing the history of the German dealings with the Jews, she makes a strong argument that many of the Nazi justifications for their policies were taken whole cloth from the American “eugenics” movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.
She argues that all dominant groups in a caste system are sensitive to threats from below, but the lower the caste the more fearful they become of losing the fewer rungs below them on the ladder. For instance white lower class Americans with less education are extremely concerned with separating themselves from the lower classes of color. She owes this to a fear that the one commodity that separates them (their white skin) is losing value. If this seems prescient two weeks before our current election I cannot deny it.
In America the dominant or Brahmin class has been white, landed, and educated. Think of Washington, Jefferson, plantation owners all over the south, and the industrial giants of the eastern sea board. Now put into it the figure of a black man by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, who created what she calls a “supernova of fear and anxiety” amongst both white leaders and the white lower castes.
The election and then re-election of Obama, she argues, has thrown the white under classes into total panic. The fear of what will happen when the population shifts toward more people of color has shown itself in the hatred of immigrants and the election of a man who is going build a wall to keep the Mexicans out and who will put his foot down on China to save lower class jobs. Conservative American protestants, commonly called Evangelicals, have joined in the chorus of fear and now rail against Muslims, gay rights, legal abortion, and liberal social programs. All of these ideas seem to favor groups who have always been on the bottom of the ladder and now are rising.
Looking at the same movement from the standpoint of the Alpha class gives you another picture. How does the insecure Alpha behave? He yells, he screams, he bullies, he attacks, and he lies in order to beat the enemies below into submission. Who does this remind you of?
She also cites studies that 80% of all whites (both rich and poor, both educated and not as well educated) exhibit “unconscious bias” toward African Americans because the American culture has exposed them for so many years to so many myths about people of color. They are criminals, rapists, lazy, can’t be educated, won’t keep their place, and siphon off all the welfare money. Although the more obvious discrimination of the Jim Crow period has receded, she argues, that most whites still discriminate in unthinking ways.
She goes on to explore the many more ways that the subordinate castes in the United States were kept down not just by skin color, but by economic restrictions. “Redlining” has kept people of color in the United States from living in certain areas. Banking discrimination has kept them from financing homes or businesses. This combines with well established facts that struggling whites and most blacks get poorer education, poorer health care, and have poorer nutrition by being congregated into food deserts. Ultimately these folks have more untreated health conditions and lower life expectancies than the wealthy. Add this to more stringent policing and more and longer incarcerations and you have a concerted system of underground controls that continue to keep the already oppressed down and in their place. To bring this again to the present, all you need to do is look at the current Covid statistics in relation to who is getting the disease and who is dying more often.
The end result of all of this has been to keep the lower castes both black and white from accumulating wealth, which in turn deprives them of the most valuable of all traits--POWER. Power is what the top class desires and what it will defend at all cost.
Ultimately she admits that caste doesn’t explain all the ills in this world, but she does insist that it has become hard to understand American life without taking its long lasting and “embedded hierarchy” into account,
She feels that the price American pays for its caste system is ironically a bleaker and less benevolent landscape for all. We have no universal medical care, few family leaves for illness or pregnancy, shorter or no vacations, weaker retirement care, and overall less concern for our fellow citizens than most other developed countries. For an update on this idea you need only to think of the symbolism embodied by wearing a mask as we experience a worldwide pandemic.
What must we work for? Not a violent revolution, she says, but more effort to at least understand the problem and then maybe to work slowly to manage some fixes. We should search for the humanity of the person in front of us. We are here and now. There is no sense in arguing about whether we are responsible for the sins of our forefathers. We are responsible for the good or ill we do to others who are alive today. We must try and make do with what we have and face up to the present by trying to change what we can change. You must admit above all that you have been born to a certain place in the scheme of things and now must decide whether you wish stay there or accept the challenge of trying to climb out of it.
Inserted along the way in this stimulating book, are more little tidbits of derivation. For instance do you know the origin of the term “scapegoat?” It comes from a Hebrew tradition of presenting two goats at the altar. One is killed to cleanse the sanctuary and the other is presented live to the Lord. A culture thus attempts to transmit its sins to the “scapegoat.” Over time the meaning has mutated to seeing the “scapegoat” as a symbol of misfortune for everyone in the scapegoat group. Thus you end up with the Jews blamed for the ills of German society and the criminal, lazy, welfare stealing blacks and immigrants who are blamed for ruining the fantasy world that never was. These groups whether Jews, Untouchables, or people of color are coming to get you and must be segregated and stopped. Sound familiar?
Another little morsel was the origin of the term “Caucasian.” It actually comes from a 17th century German medical professor who collected skulls and thought that one that came from the Caucasus was his most beautiful specimen. And thus the name for the fair haired, fair skinned, Aryan white European stock comes from Central Asia.
Sorry this is long, but it strikes me as important to at least consider this view of the world presented by one of those who was born with a weight on her head rather than a silver spoon in her mouth.