The hot new book on the anti-racism scene is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Ms. Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and National Book-Award-winning writer. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read the excerpt that was included in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, and I watched a recent zoom call in which Ms. Wilkerson discussed the book at length.
Ms. Wilkerson says she does not use the word “racism.” The word means too many different things to different people, and the word tends to make white people defensive. She also finds that the word isn’t particularly useful to describe the social construct of race relations in America.
Instead, Ms. Wilkerson analyzes race relations in America in terms of caste. She argues that we have a caste system in the United States that operates on many of the same principles that caste systems have operated elsewhere, most notably the well-known caste system in India.
Caste systems impose a rigid set of rules designed to keep groups of people both physically and socially separate, while according rights and privileges unequally between the various groups. The highest caste typically operates to keep itself pure (thus, the obsession to protect white women from black men, and the general fear of interracial marriage), and the highest caste achieves that goal by keeping itself apart from lower castes. The highest caste also extracts economic benefit from the lower castes in the form of privileges accorded only to the highest caste and cheap labor from the lower castes.
I have found that my thinking has become clearer since I began looking at race in America in terms of caste. There is little question that slavery was a two-tiered caste system, reserving power and privilege to the top and extracting wealth from the lower caste. As white immigrants came to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, several intermediate castes emerged (and often over time blended into an existing caste), with the white ruling caste always on top and the slaves always on the bottom.
The white ruling caste developed brutal enforcement mechanisms to keep blacks in place in the lowest caste. The enforcement mechanisms were necessary because there was so much unoccupied land in the early United States that without strict enforcement, slaves would simply walk away. The enforcement mechanisms included chains, beatings, killings, rapes, extreme poverty, and illiteracy.
Eventually, at least some of the white ruling caste began to see the brutality for what it was: immorality of the highest order, immorality inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States. Eventually, slavery ended, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were adopted. Unfortunately, by then the 200-year-old caste system had worked its way into the conscious and subconscious mind of many Americans: there was a logical order to things, an order by which the society operated, an order to which many people, black and white, already had grown accustomed. Even many 19th century abolitionists, while declaring their opposition to slavery, openly stated their belief that the races should remain in separate castes.
And so we had the Jim Crow era, when the beatings and killings and rapes and illiteracy continued more or less unabated. Then black people began to take advantage of a fundamental freedom they had been granted, freedom to move. They began to move north. Unfortunately for them, they found a modified version of the caste system in force in the north. By law, by social will and by force, white people told blacks where to live and what jobs they could have: the worst neighborhoods, overcrowded and unsanitary, and the worst and lowest paying jobs. Their children went to the worst schools. All by design, because white people had come to believe that this was the way it was supposed to be, and some black people had come to accept that this was the way it was. And, just as in the slave south, many white people in the north talked openly about the system; there was general agreement among the white population that the caste system was a good, necessary, proper, and suitable way to organize American society. White people with a contrary view learned to be silent.
The caste system continued more or less in that way until after World War II, when, just as with the abolition movement in the early 1800s, more white people began listening to black complaints and began talking about the immorality of maintaining such a system. We had the Civil Rights movement, the demonstrations, the riots, Supreme Court action and legislation, all designed to accord blacks the same freedoms and opportunities white people enjoyed. The legal action, however, wasn’t enough to undo the caste system. The caste system was by then a hardened social structure by which much of the country operated. Human beings, being both creative and resistant to change, found ways to keep the castes physically separate, despite the changes in the law.
For example, notwithstanding that in 1948 the U. S. Supreme Court declared racial discrimination in federal housing assistance programs unconstitutional, the administrators of those programs intentionally continued severe racial discrimination for over a decade. By the time the programs were finally made available to all, the parents of white baby boomers had paid most of their subsidized mortgages in white suburbs, while many parents of black baby boomers lived in decrepit public housing apartment buildings in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. The residential patterns, wealth differences and educational deficits that exist between white and black baby boomers, and the differences that continue for their children today, are a direct result of that discrimination.
Even when the original purpose of the caste system – cheap labor – no longer was necessary to drive the American economy, the caste system continued. Rather than conferring an economic benefit on white people, the caste system now is an economic drain on the U.S.; nevertheless, we maintain the system. Keeping a portion of our population in permanent poverty (and many in jail) makes us poorer, not richer. Moreover, we live in an innovation-driven economy, and by virtue of under-educating a portion of our population, important skill positions go unfilled. No matter. Old habits die hard, so we continue to operate a caste system that not only is immoral but that also no longer meets our needs.
Thus, African American freedom turns out to be a three-step process: (1) end slavery, (2) grant civil rights to all (we’ve done a lot, but work remains), and (3) cleanse our culture (which means us) of the caste system.
Some white people simply refuse to accept the fundamental point – that our caste system is immoral and contrary to the bedrock American principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They remain to this day openly supportive of a caste system that puts white people on top and blacks on the bottom; some believe it is the natural order of things. They are a relatively small but vocal minority. Some people believe the world is flat, too.
Many more white people, however, are in a different place. We are firmly committed to the American ideal of freedom for all, and yet, paradoxically, we also are attached to the caste system we inevitably learned as children. Because we are sensitive to the obvious conflict between the caste system and basic morality, we allow the caste system to operate subconsciously, to operate in ways that are easier to ignore or to rationalize. In that way, we can enjoy the continuing benefits the caste system affords the white top tier without undue guilt for continuing to oppress the black tier on the bottom. We say things like, “Yes, it’s a shame that blacks suffer as they do, but that just seems to be the way it is.” Then we conclude that there’s nothing for us to do about it. “I’m not a racist, so I don’t need to learn anything more about racism.”
Please be clear about one thing: I’m talking every bit as much about me as I’m talking about many other white people. I’m describing my internalized understanding of the caste system, and I’m describing how now, finally, I’ve begun to see it operating in myself. I’m describing how I, finally, have begun to see that I am the one who has to change, I am the one who has to do things differently, I am the one who is responsible for eliminating the immorality of the caste system in my life.
Please understand something else. What I am saying makes me uncomfortable, just as it makes many other white people uncomfortable. We don’t like hearing this. We don’t like seeing the caste system, because seeing it implicates us. I get that. I feel it, too. I don’t like it, either, and I fought the reality of caste for years.
I’ve discovered that we white people must have uncomfortable conversations. If we want to end the continuing immorality of the ghettos we’ve created and maintain for black people (are you listening, greater Hartford?), we must have uncomfortable conversations. If we want our country to change, if we want to afford black people the same opportunity to earn a decent living and to accumulate wealth and to enjoy all the benefits of freedom that white people enjoy in this county, we must have uncomfortable conversations. We must begin to talk about the things that, by design, we have not talked about and we resist talking about.
I’ve begun having those uncomfortable conversations, and I can tell you it isn’t all fun and games. I’ve found that having those conversations has put at risk friendships, some that I’ve maintained for forty years or more. I’ve found that avoiding those conversations for fear of losing those friendships causes me pain, but silence perpetuates the system.
I wake up some mornings wishing that I didn’t have to spend another day confronting my own place in a system that I know to be wrong, another day being uncomfortable. Can’t I just settle back into the old way of doing things, living comfortably and oblivious to the operation of a system that has served me so well?
No, I cannot.