Americans don’t think in these terms, but Isabel Wilkerson points out in no uncertain terms that the country is running a caste system, remarkably and sadly just like India’s. In India, there are four varnas and numerous, maybe thousands of subdivisions between them. Each one is a caste with strict rules of life, conduct, liberty and employment. In the US, there is the dominant caste and the subordinate caste. In between, there are various subcastes for various colors and tribes, but at the very bottom there are blacks. It’s so obvious, obstructive and intrusive that even blacks from other countries go out of their way to distinguish themselves from African Americans.
The main difference is that in India, you can only tell the castes apart by people’s postures and attitudes, because everyone is from the same genetic family. In America, it’s entirely by skin color, making it very easy to tell the castes apart. This has made America’s caste system stubbornly resistant to laws, directives or social movements. In her gripping and staggeringly affecting book Caste, Wilkerson looks at the system from every angle, finding it a terrific waste of time, human potential, and life. Its attributes are entirely negative, just as in India. It’s all for nothing and all about nothing. But it costs plenty. Those human costs are the real meat of the book.
Whites have known this a long time
Americans have been well aware of running a caste system, for centuries now. In 1832 a Virginia slaveholder said “poor whites have little but their complexion to console them for being in a higher caste.” Civil War era Senator Charles Sumner said caste was a “violation of equality.” The word keeps popping up, but it seems no one has seen fit to work with it.
The Critical Role of African Americans
Wilkerson finds that white skin is salvation for a lot of poor whites, who know with certainty that they are not the bottom of the heap — as long as there are blacks around. So it’s important to both keep them down and keep them poor. The situation is so devoid of truth or reality that 55% of Americans think all poor people are black. And that’s reason enough to keep the castes separate, and to be against aiding the poor.
The impossibility of living while black
One of the very many impressive things in Caste is the day-to-day horror of living while black. There is having to be careful over every step you take and every word you utter, lest a dominant caste member take offense — just like in India. America had a an example just last week (as I write this in May 2020) as a woman in Central Park called the police when a black birdwatcher asked her to leash her dog as signs indicated was required. She claimed her very life was being threatened by an African American. This can lead to beatings or death. False charges never stopped a lynching.
Treatment by store clerks, by doctors and by the police is different for blacks. And not better. Daily indignities and humiliations are horrors in themselves, and it’s not just a stop-and-frisk policy that sees the same men harassed several times a day, every day they dare to venture outside. It is also disproportionate jailings, sentencing and monitoring. Blacks are followed around stores, suspected of being potential shoplifters because they are black. They receive an outsized portion of traffic tickets and fines. And police kill them with little if any thought. For decades, they were denied government-backed mortgages, got worse rates on loans, and went to worse state funded schools. This is a caste system at work.
As in India, where even the shadow caused by the presence of a Dalit (Untouchable) is thought to pollute the higher castes, so in America, the thought of shaking hands or allowing a black child in a municipal swimming pool was a horror beyond imagining. When laws were enforced to allow blacks in public pools, American towns filled them with concrete rather than allow it.
There were separate everythings for the castes, from water fountains to hotels, restaurants, toilets, churches and train cars. A black with a first class ticket could not sit among whites, dine at the buffet, or mingle. Wilkerson cites a black building owner who had to enter his own building by a rear door in order to collect the rent. I use the past tense, but it clearly continues throughout the country in different mutations today. For example, the former Confederate states still maintain the death penalty, and use it mostly on blacks. Black voters are harassed for state-issued ID when voting, and the slightest mismatch, such as a missing apostrophe, is sufficient to deny them their vote. That’s when the state doesn’t totally shut down their polling stations, which are fewer than for whites and placed inconveniently far away to keep the poor from getting there at all.
Americans used to travel by the thousands to witness a lynching, buy picture postcards of the event, and even grab a body part as a souvenir afterwards. Slaves, chattel that they were, could not even rely on family. A wife or child could be sold off for a nice profit. But even after the Civil War, a child could die in front of its father at the hands of whites — with no recourse. Punishment for a crime was and still can be several times more severe for a black person. Wilkerson cites the stat that in Virginia, 71 offenses rated the death penalty for slaves, but only one of just simple imprisonment for whites. And of course the crime paranoia is totally unjustified. Wilkerson found that 10% of crimes involve a white victim and a black suspect. It’s usually the other way around.
America as Role Model for Nazis
To reinforce the points that make caste different from mere racism, Wilkerson went to Germany. She found that the Nazis created their race purity policies directly and consciously from America, the model for the world. They implemented the same sort of separations, forbidding Jews from holding certain jobs, forbidding whites from marrying or even associating with them, and in order to get a job, forcing all to prove not a drop of Jewish blood in their line, going back at least three generations. Some of the existing policies they found in America were so bizarre and offensive even the Nazis couldn’t justify implementing them. America’s caste system was proudly the worst of the worst. Nazi officials, right up to Hitler, read and prized books by American bigots. It was the umbrella the Nazis could flourish under.
The critical role of Jews in the caste system
They enslaved Jews, broke up their families, took all their possessions, erased their names and starved them while working them to death as free labor for major German firms. They eliminated their humanity and turned them into a necessary evil. The common hatred of Jews was the glue that kept the whole country together and on the same page. It has been said that if there were no Jews, Hitler would have had to invent them. Without Jews as scapegoats, Hitler would have floundered. So in the USA: blacks are tolerated with both hostility and fear. They provide the bottom rung and convenient scapegoats.
Stunning Achievement in a Book
Caste is a wonderfully constructed book. Wilkerson has filled it with stories and examples she sets up before going into her analysis of the aspect the chapter covers. The stories often open readers’ eyes to what would be ordinary situations for anyone else. But they slide into cruelty very quickly. She has plenty of her own tales, as well as famous and lesser known outrages and insults going back 200 years. It has the effect of putting the reader right in the shoes of an African American, showing how debilitatingly stressful and limiting the caste system is for them. This makes the book no treat to read, but also impossible to put down, as readers will find themselves horrified at the impossibly difficult life the dominant caste imposes on the subordinate caste.
It is necessary, but insufficient merely to feel revulsion. Wilkerson calls on everyone go far beyond not being racist, teaching children not to discriminate, and to protest abuses of power. She wants everyone to be pro-subordinate castes in an effort to dissolve them entirely.
The Fallout for America
Her point is the whole country suffers from the caste system. If there were real equality, healthcare would be equal, as would job opportunities and incarceration. The country would benefit and be much farther ahead with the skills and talents of African Americans. And not just in sports and entertainment, where they are (now) allowed. Poverty would be substantially lessened for all.
Instead, the country is a rough patchwork of different standards, different treatment, different restrictions, and suppressed lives. She says: ”It is not about luxury cars and watches, country clubs and private banks, but knowing without thinking that you are one up from another based on rules not set down in paper but reinforced in most every commercial, television show or billboard, from boardrooms to newsrooms to gated subdivisions to who gets killed first in the first half hour of a movie. This is the blindsiding banality of caste.”
One Small Example will Suffice
Wilkerson found that in 1944 there was an essay contest for kids in Columbus Ohio. The topic was what to do with Hitler after the war. A 16 year old black girl won with just one sentence: “Put him in black skin and make him live the rest of his life in America.”