The caste system that perpetuates racial inequality

Dec 2, 2020 | 14 comments

For many years I have believed there is systemic racism in the U.S. regarding our Black population. The needless deaths of Blacks at the hands of the police, the many detailed stories over the years about the day-after-day demeaning treatment that Blacks have always been subjected to and now, reading a new book, the reality of their plight has finally penetrated to a deeper place in my thinking so that in addition to my coldly, stoical (Swedish & English stock) intellectual understanding there is (finally!) a powerful feeling in my gut that this is wrongAnd, something else new: I don’t feel a need to explain the feeling by putting a label on it. It is present, it is powerful, it is opening me up, it is freeing me from the intellectual prison I was in regarding the subject.

The straw that was the spark for this change is a powerful new book by Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents in which she concludes, with reams of evidence, that the mistreatment of Blacks is not based on race but on them being a group over which the whites could have power. This was purposefully developed into a powerful caste system which has continued from its inception in 1619 in Virginia, infecting the whole country.

Image of an 1853 slave sale in Mobile, Alabama.

All caste systems, wherever located in the world, are based on eight pillars. The first is that it is ordained by divine authority and the laws of nature and that the lowest castes deserve their debasement because of their past sins. Because they are inherently inferior there is nothing they can do to escape from their plight.

Second is heritability. You are born into a caste, whether low, middle or high, and you and your progeny can never escape.

Third is that you procreate only within your caste, high or low. For the lowest, marriage and mating must be controlled because they are less than human and an enemy, a threat, to be held in check at all costs.

Number four follows naturally: the dominant caste is pure but fears pollution from the castes below to the extent of not touching anything that a lower caste person has touched or even swimming in the same water.

The mudsill in construction is the plate at the bottom and on the earth which supports the entire structure. In the caste system, the lowest caste is the mudsill which everything else rests upon. From a speech in the Senate in 1858: “There must be a class to do the menial duties … requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class … constitutes the very mudsill of society. …Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. …From the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves.”

After Reconstruction, the southern states enacted laws precluding Blacks from most occupations the Governor of Mississippi said: “God Almighty designed him [the Black] for a menial. He is fit for nothing else.”  This association between menial labor and blackness entrapped them in a circle of subservience in the American mind, punishing them for being in a condition they were forced to endure and this image of servitude shadowed them into freedom.

The sixth pillar is dehumanization and stigma. Since it is very difficult to dehumanize the single individual in front of you, you dehumanize the group, locking the marginalized outside the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable.

Number seven is the use of terror and cruelty to constantly remind the dominated of the absolute power the dominant caste held over them. Brutal whipping for trying to say goodbye to your children being sold, or being the last slave out of the cabin, forgetting to say “yes sir” and, of course, to break the spirit of a young or rebellious slave.

Inherent superiority vs. inherent inferiority is number eight.  “…It must be understood in every interaction that one group was superior and inherently deserving of the best in a given society and that those who were deemed lowest were deserving of their plight.” To ride the bus the Black had to get on, pay the fare, get off and get on at the back door (if the bus had not driven off) which kept the Black from tainting the white by walking by them. Blacks could not wear clothing that was equal to or better than whites.

During WWII Black soldiers wearing their uniforms were assaulted for that reason. In 1944, a teen age Black boy sent a Christmas card to a white female co-worker. It was discovered and he was bound hand and foot (naked, of course) and, in front of his father, forced to jump into the river where he drowned.

Some quotes from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents:

“Over the centuries people at the margins have had to study those at the center of power, learn their invisible codes and boundaries, commit to memory the protocols and idiosyncrasies, because their survival depends upon knowing them as well if not better than their own dreams and wishes.”

“One cannot live in a caste system, breathe its air, without absorbing the message of caste supremacy. The subordinated castes are trained to admire, worship, fear, love, covet, and want to be like those at the center of society, at the top of the hierarchy.”

“Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.”

The book is full of illustrative stories. One I particularly liked was about a reporter for the New York Times (she was small and Black) assigned to do a story about a new boutique store. When the store owner, arriving late, came rushing in he told her she would have to leave, that he had a very important meeting with a reporter from the New York Times. She explained, more than once, that she was the reported but, in his frenzy, he didn’t hear her and rushed her out and the story, which was important for his business, never got written.

A grimmer tale is of a group of slaves ordered to lie face down on the ground so they could be whipped. A female was far along in her pregnancy so to make her more comfortable, her masters dug a hole for her belly before proceeding with the whipping.

May this help you, like it did me, understand the enormity of the problem.

Dave Nelson

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