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The Student News Site of MAST Academy

The Beacon

The Beacon

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a harrowing look into America’s caste system

By Isabella Zimmermann

A picture from the era of Nazi Germany depicts this: among a crowd of shipyard workers, one man stands alone in the group. His arms are folded to his chest as the others raise their arm in a salute. Anyone who looks at this image would admire the man’s courage to stand up against the Third Reich. Yet, many of us wonder whether we would do the same. We try to convince ourselves that we would have surely seen through the façade of the Nazis.

“What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

This is how Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson begins her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Published this last August, Caste delves deep into America’s “unseen skeleton,” or its caste system, which has invisibly organized humans into a hierarchy based on the color of their skin, beyond class and race. 

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Following her 2010 book The Warmth of the Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is Isabel Wilkerson’s second book on the racial caste system that dominates the United States. (Photo courtesy of Greg Mollica)

Wilkerson defines a caste system as “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.”

The US’s history has witnessed the mistreatment of minorities, especially African-Americans, since before there existed a United States of America. In late 1619, before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, white men already began to refer to Africans as merchandise. Our current caste system’s foundation formed during a time when Africans were not listed in the census by name and when they were captured and sold for profit.

Various factors have changed in the definition of who joins the dominant caste. In colonial Virginia, religion once was a dominating factor in deciding who received a place on the top of the pyramid. But when Africans began converting to Christianity, the caste system evolved to exclude them from the highest rung. This phenomenon has repeated several times to stigmatize African-Americans and fix illogical rankings based on uncontrollable human traits. For example, immigrants in the 1900s “had to enter into a silent, unspoken pact of separating and distancing themselves from the established lowest caste” to be accepted by a society that previously rejected them and viewed them as part of the lower castes.

American slavery lasted from 1619 to 1865. What the colonists had created was “an extreme form of slavery that had existed nowhere in the world,” wrote the legal historian Ariela J. Cross, who Wilkerson cites. For 216 years, African-Americans in the United States were terrorized, tortured, treated like cattle, and controlled by people who presumed they had ownership of their bodies simply because they were white.

“It is a measure of how long enslavement lasted in the United States that the year 2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil,” Wilkerson writes. African-Americans will be as free for as long as they have been enslaved in the year 2111, 90 years from now.

Wilkerson writes that there have been three major caste systems that have prominently stood out in human history, naming the disappeared caste system of Nazi Germany, India’s millennia-long caste system, and the race-based caste system of the United States. Each of the three aimed to “[stigmatize] those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement,” Wilkerson writes. Caste systems are embedded into their respective cultures or justified as divine will, thus making them difficult to dismantle.

Wilkerson argues that the main factor dictating the American hierarchy is race. The “subordinate caste” consists of African-Americans, while the “middle caste” includes Asians and Latinos. Wilkerson clarifies that “caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.” Race is what we believe we see immediately, whereas caste shackles each group to their designated roles. It is this reasoning which limits Wilkerson’s use of the word racism.

Instead, Wilkerson writes that the racial caste system was built on “what the anthropologist Ashley Montago called ‘an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits,’ derived from a few of the thousands of genes that makes up a human being.'”

Caste is split into six parts, each delving into the nature and past of human history’s three caste systems. Part three enters explicitly into the territory of the eight pillars of caste which have dominated India’s, the Third Reich’s, and America’s: sacred text, heritability, control of marriage and mating, the idea of purity lying in the dominant caste and pollution in the subordinate caste, occupation, dehumanization, terror as a means of enforcement, and inherent superiority.

Wilkerson details specific, horrifying events that have virtually disappeared from many people’s memory in these sections. In December 1943, for example, a fifteen-year-old boy named Willie James Howard had written a Christmas card to a crush he had on his white coworker. In it, he signed: “with L (for love).” The seemingly-innocent confession earned him his death at the hands of his crush’s angry father, who forced him to jump and drown to his death in a river, all the while his father was forced to watch at gunpoint.

Before his death, he had hand-delivered an apology note to the girl. “I know you don’t think much of our kind of people but we don’t hate you, all we want [is] to be your friend but you [won’t] let us please don’t let anybody else see this I hope I haven’t made you mad,” Howard penned.

“I love your name. I love your voice. For a SH [sweetheart] you are my choice,” he added at the end.

Americans have been to blame for inconceivable violence towards African-Americans, though we like to “think of our country as being far beyond the guillotines of medieval Europe or the reign of the Huns.” To this day, we raise racists and torturers on pedestals, ignoring the awful acts they committed. Just as the Nazis experimented on twins and Jews, doctor James Marion Sims, hailed as the founding father on gynecology, conducted surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia, saying that his procedures were “not painful enough to justify the trouble.” We ignore the fact that even Nazis thought Americans were too harsh in dictating that one drop of African-American blood made you black.

The caste system is ever-evolving. Those in the middle rungs continue to try to assimilate and appear white so that they, too, can escape prejudice. Even now, people defend Confederates whose cause was solely to keep a group of people enslaved, fighting to keep their statues from being torn down.

Caste is an eye-opener to a system we are all unaware of, but live under each day. Many unknowingly suffer from implicit bias. According to Harvard sociologist David R. Williams, Americans are “exposed to a culture with enough negative messages about African Americans and other marginalized groups that as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it.” One-third of black Americans share anti-black sentiments as well.

Americans dislike the topic of slavery and racism, feeling uncomfortable at facing their prejudices which dictate how they treat others, as “the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.” It does not matter whether my or your ancestors participated in these horrific acts; we are all Americans partaking in a society that consistently has put down African-Americans since before it was even founded. The country cannot, as Wilkerson states, “become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order.”

As a culture, we frequently go on witch-hunts to catch supposed outliers—take BBQ Becky, for example, a white woman who called the police on two black men who used a charcoal grill in a designated grilling zone. Or take ID Adam, Pool Patrol Paula, and Permit Patty. Their acts of racism, all of which have been captured on video, have gained them these infamous nicknames. And while it is good to hold these people accountable, it is wrong to assume that we have identified “rare” cases of bigotry when, in fact, the problem “[is] at the root.” By focusing on individuals, we fool ourselves into thinking that we have solved racism when the system that controls how each of us acts remains perfectly in place.

So how do we combat this deep-rooted caste system?

“It is not enough to not be racist or sexist. Our times call for being pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all of its manifestations,” Wilkerson writes. “In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant.”

“We are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago. But we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today.”

Beautifully written, researched, and paced, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste sheds light on our caste system’s history, the pain it has caused, and the presence it still has in our daily lives. Caste was a shocking read, but I consider it to be a must-read for anyone willing to open their mind to the problems that plague our society.

Caste awakens us to the tragedies inflicted on others because of the superficial features that they cannot alter.

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a harrowing look into America’s caste system